I don’t need to believe all the dreams you conceiveMartin Gore, A Pain That I’m Used To
You just need to achieve something that rings true
I once worked for a dynamic leader who would frequently say that there are three things that employees want to know: 1) Where are we going? 2) How will we get there? and 3) What’s in it for me? His words often return to my mind and I believe get to the heart of the concept of “engagement” as it relates to any human being.
All of us want to be a part of something that is going somewhere, understand the path forward, and participate in the journey in a meaningful way. I used to think that “what’s in it for me” was a purely financial question but have come to realize that is only true to a point. What someone wants from any journey carries implications for hopes and dreams far beyond financial compensation, particularly on the employment journey.
In a recent article on a problem within the drug benefits industry, I describe the reality that even when significant cost savings are identified in analysis after analysis, employers will continue to stick with the status quo rather than venture toward innovative approaches to saving money. The point? The decision is about more than money. Sure, they may want to save money but it is rarely incentive enough by itself to drive changes in behavior. They are looking for meaningful change, managed risk, and somewhere new.
Chasing Something New
We are all drawn to the new and the novel. As individual consumers, we love shiny objects and that behavior carriers over into all aspects of our lives. However, the choice continuum spans not only cost or novelty implications, it also includes value considerations. Value to us encompasses effort, risk, and reward. Some pathways are low risk and easy to execute while having some degree of reward. Some provide the opportunity for a significant reward but are difficult and/or risky.
We are constantly making these calculations as we evaluate any crossroad we encounter. Is it worth the cost? Is it worth the risk? Is it worth the effort? Pressing on those calculations are the personal attributes we bring to any decision: our aversion or attraction to risk and our level of desire for whatever something new might bring to our lives.
Our interest in chasing something new will also vary depending on which dimension of our life within which it appears. We may be highly risk averse at work but display high risk tolerance in our personal lives. In this case, cost and benefit take on different meanings. At work, the approval of others may bear more weight as may our sense of larger responsibility, while at home, our choices may benefit from increased privacy or implications limited to a much smaller scope.
However, the game changes when we move away from the driver’s seat. New pathways become far more appealing when someone else shows us the way and alleviates or spreads the burden of the decision. Take a look at our influencer-driven society. Influencers, connectors, spokespeople, reviewers, and various other “experts” remove some degree of risk from the new or novel by virtue of having walked the path or having perceived credibility. The risk of being first or making a bad decision seems reduced when someone else is leading the way.
The implications for leaders are immense. For anyone seeking to move, influence, engage, inspire, or change anyone else, understanding the dynamics of our natural attraction/repulsion to change or newness is both science and art. The paradox is that most of us are hungry for something new but we also prefer the comfort of the known and the predictable. We are drawn to change while equally frightened by it.
Considering the dynamic leader I referenced earlier, one of his great gifts was drawing others to his particular vision of the future. I don’t know how he conceived it, but he was able to pull a concept together, put enough substance around it to attract others, and then move it forward through a combination of will, effort, and leadership that motivated those around him to own it and execute on the broader plan. Along the way, he stuck with his playbook by always reminding us where we were going, how we were going to get there, and what waited for us when we arrived. All of us were bought-in, understood our role, and executed on the plan. His vision became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Sounds easy enough, right? Success looks pretty straightforward in hindsight from a distance. The truth is that it is not easy, obvious, or guaranteed. Even with a brilliant vision, plan, and team. We look at famous companies and they all seemed predestined to dominate their landscape. We watch fast-growth companies appear on the radar and wonder how they are able to see around corners and anticipate the future. I look back on my experience with one or more of the high growth businesses in which I worked and think: “How did he know?” “Why did she pursue that strategy?” “How was that even possible?”
Of course, they didn’t “know,” at least not for certain. Sure, someone had to see a different future, chart a path toward it, and rally the troops, but after that, it was ever-changing. For those of us leading, challenging, dreaming, and pushing toward our own visions, that thought simultaneously inspires hope and terror. The hope of realizing that things will happen along the way and can be overcome. The terror of realizing that the path is not straight, predictable, or guaranteed.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow
A frequent critique of our current age is that we’ve stopped thinking big. That sounds kind of strange as we watch massive companies and massive government direct massive dollars toward massive projects. However, much of what we see is evolutionary. Most corporate Investments are made in ideas that incrementally improve on things we’re currently doing, into markets we know have buyers, or into necessary fixed assets to sustain operations. Government spending is on programs that keep politicians in office – there is no grand vision nor new territories to discover. Don’t hold your breath for a “moonshot” vision anytime soon.
Our largest companies are stuck in the “innovator’s dilemma,” a place where they are deriving too much revenue from proven markets to rationalize taking risks on unproven ideas. Look at big pharma, we needed a massive pandemic to give them a chance to bring us a new blockbuster vaccine. Thank you for innovating, however, that was highly reactive leadership to a known problem and known outcomes when they succeeded – all of which was just a matter of time. Thank God for our intellectual capital and industrial capabilities. Alas, the only new we have from that process is the “new normal” of a post-COVID world.
Where are the big ideas? Where is the innovation? In a recent blog post, John Singer ascribes our inability to envision a new future or change to “weapons of mass entrenchment.” Besides being incredibly clever, the phrase captures so much of the challenge of leadership: new success is incredibly difficult to imagine or attain and old success is incredibly difficult to sustain in the face of an ever-changing world. Here, it becomes more and more difficult to see that magical land somewhere over the rainbow.
The Vision Thing
in Zero to One, Peter Thiel asks “Do you believe in secrets?” Do we maintain a world-view that believes in undiscovered mysteries or do we cynically conclude that all big secrets have been found. Vision begins with the notion of a secret. When we see a path to solving a big problem, answering a difficult question, or creating an unseen opportunity, we are glimpsing a vision for the future. Sometimes those secrets are hiding in plain sight and sometimes they require rigorous discovery. One glimpsed, they cannot be unseen.
With a vision for the future, we can begin to imagine a path, a team, an approach, and maybe even a company. Sometimes those secrets offer world-changing possibilities, sometimes they are life-changing, and sometimes they simply make things a little better in our homes, job, or communities. Wherever you find them, they present an opportunity to go somewhere new. We are hungry for it even as we rest in our comfort. We are called to it even as we remain anchored in the patterns of today. Occasionally we can move ourself toward it but we often need someone else to show us, encourage us, nudge us, and sometimes drag us in that new direction. Whatever the case may be, it began with a vision.
That dynamic leader I mentioned earlier? Though I can’t speak to the particulars of his journey, I suspect that he did not create his vision in a lightning strike moment, sitting alone on a mountain. He likely formed it over time, through many experiences, and with the input of others. His “somewhere new” probably rested on the foundation of a hundred other visions of varying permutations. Every one of us has the opportunity to see somewhere new. Grand or mundane, there is always a hidden path or secret door waiting for us to find it.
Toward New Horizons
For those hungry for new possibilities, new ideas, and new energy, there is hope. For all of its gritty difficulties, our country, with its political system and economy, still offers plenty of room for fresh visions of the future and novel approaches to old, and new, problems. There are still undiscovered ideas waiting for us to find them and new horizons toward which we might steer our ships. Opportunities abound for those who will pronounce a bold vision, point us toward something, and show us how to get there.
Can you achieve something that rings true? Can you help us cross the threshold of fear and the resistance that comes with it? Do you have a vision for a future compelling enough to get us to change in spite of real or perceived risks? Billions of dollars are sitting out there looking for good ideas. Or, maybe you have a vision to make things a little better where you are, thereby changing your world in your own way. Great! Either way, we are waiting for leaders who will show us the way. We are waiting for you to take us somewhere new.