Vision Comes Second


I’ve got something to say about the V-word – “Vision” with a capital “V” – that is going to piss off a whole lot of self-proclaimed Visionaries and also a whole lot of my fellow authors, speakers, and other leadership guides. Ready? Probably not, but tough. Here it comes anyway:

Vision comes second. First, there is action.

We humans looooove our narrative. We need it! The human brain does not give a damn about facts, statistics, or even logic most of the time – if you’ve ever spent time with a human, you know this to be true. But give us an anecdote, it’ll fuel us for hours; delight us with a well-crafted narrative, a “founding story,” perhaps, and we’ll blissfully sail on its caressing wind for days.

And when it comes to the question, “How did you think up your business?” that’s exactly what you’ll get: wind. A whole lot of hot air. People do not first create their business vision and then launch their companies. People launch their companies thinking maybe it’s about doing this, and then figure out what they really should be doing based on what customers actually care to buy from them.*

People do not first create their business vision and then launch their companies.

I know I’m telling tales out of school. I realize I’m blowing it for my fellow business founders, and inventors, and creative types who want to be seen as special, and different, and clever, and Visionary. Sorry folks. My first obligation is to my readers here on Switch and Shift. And I’m not going to steer them wrong with yet another founder’s tale. Plus, I desperately needed a post for our Vision Cast series , and no post was coming. Turns out, there’s a reason for that.

The muse wasn’t blessing me with inspiration for a post on vision because my particular muse cannot stand it when I stray too far from the truth. Every time I try she simply refuses to visit, which results in a completely blank Word document in front of me for hours at a time. It’s not my favorite, let me tell you.

Fortunately, my muse guides me in other ways when she won’t let me make up stories out of whole cloth. Disgusted with myself over the writer’s block, I put my blank Vision Cast doc away and got to work on another project: research. My new friend Elizabeth Galbut at Johns Hopkins Innovation Factory was going to interview me for their burgeoning video collection. “Let’s see what their interviews are like,” I thought, so I hopped on their site and watched the latest one, an interview of Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, one of my favorite (though least-used) social sharing platforms. Cool!

What does he say, just a minute and 28 seconds into his interview? He said what I have said about every endeavor I’ve ever started:

“We really didn’t know what we were doing.”

That’s exactly how Switch and Shift started, too. Shawn Murphy and I teamed up to make a blog together. A blog. Not a “multimedia leadership website.” Not source of one of the top business/career podcasts on the planet (Shawn’s Work That Matters). Not home of a League of Extraordinary Thinkers. Not the launch pad of my TV show featuring interviews with numerous fascinating leaders, or even the central meeting place of proponents of The Human Side of Business. None of that! Shawn and I set out to make just a modest little leadership blog.

So we blogged. We acted. Action came first. Meaning came from that action; “vision” (small “v”) if you prefer, only much later, especially now that Mark Babbitt is with us, as well.

Doing came first for us, then vision. Just like Alexis and his co-founder with Reddit. Just like most of the incredibly successful founders I know – be they business leaders, or thought leaders (aka experts), or nonprofit leaders, or any other type of leader you meet.

Don’t believe me? Wait a couple of weeks until you watch my interview with Dorie Clark, author of Reinventing You. Just about every page of Dorie’s must-read book has a new example of someone who acted first and figured out the narrative second, as did Dorie herself, who majored in philosophy, became a journalist, and was laid off. Toss in the career chaos dealt many of us by 9/11, then stints in political campaigns, at a nonprofit, and as a B-school professor, and that’s a whole lot of, “Hmn… there’s got to be a narrative in there somewhere that I can craft to launch my next career. Let’s figure out what makes sense.”

Once we get to work, we bump into reality. Then we craft the real narrative we need to make sense of our action.

…And that’s just Dorie. Wait till you hear about the poet turned consultant, the lawyer turned master wine connoisseur, the psychologist turned agent for peace and inventor of a Muslim-friendly product like Pokeman.

First we take action, thinking that we know what we’re really up to. But as General Eisenhower said of battle plans, which are only valid until the first bullet is fired, once we get to work, we bump into reality. Then we craft the real narrative we need to make sense of our action.

First the action, then the vision. ’Twas ever thus.

* Literally the last time a company had a vision first, then started doing, was in the 1970’s when Fred Smith founded FedEx from a business plan he submitted as his project in grad school. That’s the last time it happened. And that was a fluke.

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Image credit- ivelinradkov / 123RF Stock Photo

Ted Coiné is a Forbes Top 10 Social Media Power Influencer and an Inc. Top 100 Leadership and Management Expert. This stance at the crossroads of social and leadership put him in a unique perspective to identify the demise of Industrial Age management and the birth of the Social Age. The result, after five years of trend watching, interviewing and intensive research, is his latest book, A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive, which he co-authored with Mark Babbitt. An inspirational speaker and popular blogger, Ted is a pioneer of the Human Side of Business (#humanbiz) movement. He is also a serial business founder and three-time CEO. When not speaking at conferences and corporate functions, Ted advises CEOs on how to become Truly Social Leaders, or “Blue Unicorns” as they put it in A World Gone Social, in order to bring their companies into the Social Age. Ted’s advice: “Change is only scary if it’s happening to you. Instead, bring the change your competitors dread. That is something only a Social Age business leader can accomplish.”

  • JohnRichardBell

    You and Shawn deciding to team up for the blog was the Vision – it came first and yes, it wasn’t fully developed – that’s okay. To me, the idea of “getting at it” is the crux of this post and its real value. At some point one has to get started. I used to encourage corporate types to be entrepreneurial in “measured bite,” such as small tests or tiny markets. The mantra for that was “fire, ready, aim.” Good thoughts, my friend.

  • Achim Nowak

    Ted … I love your fire in this post!!! For me, it is not a first or second game. I, too, have started several businesses where I said “hey, let’s try this,” and then the business told me what it could be and where it might want to go. I am, in fact, in the midst of such an experiment with a collaborator, right now. I also know that for my current business, Influens, the visioning/branding process I did at the start, with a bunch of outside helpers, indeed created the very business it has become …
    Fire away, my friend.

  • Ted, in Solution Focus we usually look for what’s in between the two perspectives. I wholly agree about taking action, then defining the vision. Once we get going (making progress, making mistakes, finding what works, converting others to our cause, etc.), we then set vision so that others can understand where are headed.

    What’s in between the two that’s critical? Passion. That can / has to be shared alongside action.

  • Thank you, John, it means more than I can say coming from an experienced CEO such as you. That line – with “aim” last – is my favorite take-away from “In Search of Excellence.” It suits my personality type perfectly, so I latched onto it, often to (*ehem*) entertaining results. But every so often it works out, sometimes just great: this site is case-in-point.

  • Rhonda Hale Warren

    I really needed to read this today. Thank you! I always find myself in the trenches of trying to figure out my ever-evolving vision, and yet, my practice is founded on action. That will be my focus. And I love Dorie Clark! Just finishing up her book and can’t wait to unpack it all.

  • Pingback: The Friday Roundup – goals, hallucinations, difficult questions meaning out of action and the impostor syndrome()

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