Transformation: vision is the opium of organizations
“The main blocking point in the transformation of our organization is that our general management has not articulated a clear vision” recently told me a participant in a training seminar, with an air of obviousness of the sentences which seem logical but do not not work. Well no, your organization doesn’t need a clear vision to transform. On the contrary, one can even defend the idea that having a vision is counterproductive and will hinder transformation.
“We are repeating the revolution, but the plebeians are late. —Günter Grass
This is what general management must say to each other when their fine vision goes unheeded. It seems so obvious that having a vision is a prerequisite for transformation because after all, to paraphrase Alice, if you don’t know where you are going, you have little chance of getting there, right?
Well, transformation is not a wonderland and what seems so logical does not actually work, for several reasons:
First, the very notion of vision induces its own failure: a manager of a large French company recently told me about his CEO, saying “He has a superb vision, but nothing to do, it does not cascade.” The idea that a brilliant visionary thinker should show the way, with the responsibility of his subordinates to translate this vision into action, reflects a Cartesian conception distinguishing thinkers from actors without a real link between the two, and above all considering the actors as incapable. to think and develop the vision collectively. Complain then that the vision of the brilliant leader does not “cascade” simply reflects managerial incompetence of the latter.
Secondly, the vision is dictatorial: It is imposed on the masses who must accept it and translate it into action. In doing so, it translates a conception of the old world, hierarchical, based on the knowledge of the leader, while it is supposed to allow the advent of the new world, based on autonomy, mistrust of hierarchies and truths. revealed, and entrepreneurial spirit.
Thirdly, vision does not prevent failure: from the 1980s, Kodak had a clear vision of the impact of digital technology on its analog film business. The first digital camera having been invented in its walls in 1975, the general management of Kodak knows for sure, from the 80s, that the future is digital. The firm will invest heavily in this area, developing a real strategy, spending more than 5 billion dollars, introducing the first digital devices on the market, without any real impact since the case will end in bankruptcy and disappear in 2012. clear vision does not prevent being trapped in the innovator’s dilemma.
Fourth, vision is distractive: In the 90s, Andy Grove, CEO of Intel recently died and praised by the press, was enthusiastic about video conferencing. Intel had left millions of dollars there to no avail and while the CEO was busy pursuing his vision, its competitor AMD was carving out its entry-level croupiers and threatening its very existence. It took a sudden awakening for Intel to correct the situation and avoid going off the road.
Fifth, and more fundamentally, vision is an excuse not to change anything: Since it is impossible to implement, since it is the responsibility of the supreme leader, the vision is very practical to do nothing. Top management can be accused of producing infeasible plans, and they can accuse subordinates of poor execution. A fury of meetings, coordination committees, monitoring indicators and appointment of transformation directors will follow; nothing will happen but everyone will be at their peak. During this time the competitors will pick up the markets.
Entrepreneurs do without a vision to transform the world
All of this is all the more tragic since nothing has ever shown that a vision is necessary to succeed, and even less in a situation of rupture. Ikea didn’t have a vision when it started; 3M either; neither AirBnB, nor Google, nor Facebook. Elon Musk is a brilliant exception, but we measure the risks he takes… Not sure that many companies want to play this game… If entrepreneurs do not need a prior vision to transform the world, why should it be. there one to transform an existing organization?
Worse than that, in a situation of uncertainty, having a vision can be counterproductive. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to know where we are going. Some are worried about it, and paradoxically reinforce their prediction efforts, in a sort of headlong rush; others rejoice. But what is certain is that the future will be a surprise. No one can predict the future of their industry; nor that this will be uberized and will disappear, as the photo film industry has disappeared, or as it will succeed in transforming itself to be reborn, like European textiles after the bleeding of the 70s or multiplex cinemas after the VCR and DVD. Why then insist on predicting? Why impose an exercise in creating a vision that is likely to consume a pharaminous energy by making managers work on technologies that they do not understand, and if they do understand them, of which they cannot? measure the implications, and which is also likely to turn out to be wrong after a few months, taking the company in the wrong direction?
Research in entrepreneurship has long shown, with the concept of execution, that entrepreneurs bring out their vision along the way. This emerges from their actions based on the application of a few simple, but generic principles. The key to organizational transformation therefore does not lie in designing the perfect plan based on a vision, but in putting these principles into practice at all levels of the organization. The creation of the context allowing this to be put into practice is the only real imperative for general management.
Philippe Silberzahn is professor of entrepreneurship, strategy and innovation at EMLYON Business School and associate researcher at thePolytechnic School (CRG), where he received his doctorate. His work focuses on how organizations manage situations of radical uncertainty and complexity, from an entrepreneurial perspective with the study of the creation of new markets and new products, and from a managerial perspective with the study management of disruptions, strategic surprises (black swans) and complex problems (“wicked problems”) by large organizations.