by George Smart, Jr.
As consultants, we all know the value of vision. The Greek philosophers spoke about it. Former President George Bush recommended attention to "the vision thing." What happens when an organization's problem isn't a lack of vision but too much? What happens when the CEO's vision changes monthly, weekly, or even daily-driving his organization crazy? Welcome to Visionary's Disease. If you are consulting to someone who suffers from it, you are probably very frustrated.
Here's a case history. A number of years ago, I was brought into a high-tech company to look at why morale was poor and projects always behind schedule and overbudget. When I met the CEO, the problem was clear. It was my first exposure to Visionary's Disease, and he had a serious case. Like many techno-CEOs, "Don" was young, brilliant, and unorganized. Some months earlier, the company had been given a major cash infusion from a Fortune 500 company. With this new cash, Don could attend virtually any conference he wanted. He went everywhere, from Indiana to Indonesia. He networked with men and women who shaped the industry.
Each time, he returned home with a new grand vision, and within 48 hours he called a special management meeting to discuss it. When Don got his own cell phone and laptop, he actually tried to conduct these meetings from the plane. Managers soon learned that "discussion" really meant "announcement." The obvious next step - a discussion of what people should stop doing or do less of to start anything new - was implicitly taboo. Only in the most passive way ("I know we're all busy, but …") would Don acknowledge that everyone was already working above capacity. And Don had been known to say that such discussions "lacked vision."
Of course Don's new visions involved heroic efforts and substantial redirection of resources. After each announcement meeting, managers returned to their departments to dismantle what had been underway. A frantic round of meetings and e-mails would bring the company to a screeching halt as frustration levels soared, planning ceased, and everyone scrambled to redirect customers, suppliers, and each other. Then Don would leave for another trip. This happened almost monthly.
It was hard to object. Don was brilliant, and the company did have a good product. But Don did not want to listen to objections. He treated practical concerns about stability, capacity, and leadership as signs of disloyalty, laziness, or the most deadly sin of all - technical ignorance.
Company turnover soared to 25%, the investors were nervous, and sales dropped because the salespeople were never sure what to sell. Project management stalled and employees had a glazed look.
I'd like to report a fitting moral conclusion to this story, something like Don going out of business for his failure to sustain a vision, or investors forcing him to have some kind of leadership epiphany. Unfortunately, Visionary's Disease is infrequently fatal in high-profit high-tech. After all the money ran out, Don simply went out and got more. Millions more. The promise of his software was so alluring that it really didn't matter whether people were managed well or not. Companies with deep-pocketed investors can and do get away with this behavior. Now, with the Internet pouring millions (sometimes billions) into firms, I see Visionary's Disease on the rise.
Visionary's Disease is extremely resistant to conventional treatments. CEOs rarely see their behavior as symptomatic of anything negative. In fact, they herald their ability-to-turn-on-dime as a great strength. The collusion of cash and genius, bringing feelings of creative liberation, often marks the beginning of infection. So what can a consultant do when the senior manager shows signs of Visionary's Disease? Here are a few suggestions on how to temper its effects:
1. Surface the assumptions a new vision implies. For example, will it mean bringing in new specialists and in what timeframe? Will it mean the CEO has to stay home more to cheerlead and/or direct a project? Surfacing assumptions immediately puts boundaries on a vision (keep reminding the CEO this is a good thing) and begins the essential crystallizing process from which plans can be sanely made.
2. Agree to reduce the number of times the vision can change in a year. Establish a quarterly strategy conference in which the CEO and others can share what they've learned recently. Setting up exchanges that are expected reduces the stress that frequent, sudden changes can cause.
3. Require a second management meeting before the vision changes, establishing at least a two-week "cooling off period" between the CEO's first meeting and any decisions to start working on it. Agree that nothing changes until the CEO calls this second meeting to formally sanction any new vision. You'll be amazed how frequently the second meeting never gets called.
4. Use crises as teachable moments to give CEO's feedback on organizational capacity. When things are going poorly, resistance to feedback can lessen enough to engage a frank discussion of capacity.
5. Honor the reality of people's capacity. A common corporate fantasy is that people have unlimited capacity and can do everything, but we all know this isn't true. Know what you want to stop doing or decrease before you increase.
6. Honor the reality of people's productivity. Working longer hours is not the answer to all project management problems. Nearly every CEO I have coached is proud of their 60-hour weeks. They wear them like a badge of honor. But any sane plan has to start with realism. If you really want to work smarter, stop working so long, and the really unimportant tasks will fall away. Heart attack and stroke victims learned this valuable lesson the hard way, and they will tell you they are better for it.
7. Have the CEO take an operations person along on some trips. In many companies, operations is the last area to know about a change, yet they are often the most directly affected. Including this function earlier in vision development is a wonderful reality check. Given half a chance, the operations perspective can show the CEO a grander but substantially more implementable idea.
At the very least, look at your own practice. Are you changing direction so frequently as to drive your spouse, your colleagues, or your clients crazy? Are you so brilliant a consultant that incoming cash flow obscures the many fits and starts you've thrown your practice into. As with most diseases, the cure starts at home.