My daughter just turned old enough to get her driver’s permit. This is a whole new world for me, mostly one of abject terror and serious consternation about why they let babies drive cars. But that is a debate for another day.
As we have been practicing her driving skills, I find myself constantly reminding her to “Look ahead.” Don’t just look at where you are, but where you are going. Do have a turn coming up? Do you need to anticipate changing lanes or decreasing your speed? Please decrease your speed! It’s always a good idea to decrease your speed. She tends to hug the right side of the lane, enough so, that a few people have honked at her. I’ve told her that if she focuses on the road ahead, the car naturally ends up in the middle of the lane. When we’re focusing too closely on what is immediately in front of us, that’s when we can get off track.
The same is true in our businesses as well. We need daily, weekly, monthly goals and objectives of course, but we also need to have a firm vision of where we are going in the first place. I recently read some comments by Jeff Bezos that reminded me of this. He was talking about how most market analysts and commentators are focused on what’s happening currently, but that the great companies are “actually living in the future.” He said:
“We’ll announce our Amazon quarterly results, and [people will say], ‘Great quarter, congratulations!’ And then I say, ‘Thank you.’ But what I really think about is [how] that quarter was kind of baked and done 2 or 3 years ago, and right now the senior executives at Amazon are working on a quarter that’s going to happen in 2021, 2022.”
For many of this, looking two or three years ahead may seem overwhelming when you’re putting out today’s fires, but remember it’s not about working on a three-year to-do list; it’s simply looking far enough ahead to know where you want to end up and the general direction you’re going to take.
Creating a long-term vision takes effort and time, which is why many companies don’t do it. Additionally, as humans, we often resist looking that far ahead because there it involves so much uncertainty and so many unknown variables. I have found the best way to overcome this resistance is to ask a few important questions, all grounded in what is happening today:
Just start to brainstorm where you would like to be. One of the most important things to remember during this part of the process of creating a vision is that you don’t have to know the HOW. This is just an exercise in WHERE, not HOW. As you think about what you want, you might find yourself or someone on your team asking, “Well, how are we going to do that?!” Needing to know HOW will block your ability to create a vision from all the possibilities available. All of the practical details—the WHO, WHAT, WHEN, HOW—will take care of themselves when it’s time. Right now, you are just focusing on the eventual destination.
Your company is unlike any other. There are things that make you different and set you apart from everyone else in your industry or service area. Clearly identify what those things are and make a list. This list will play a critical role as you move into the HOW phase of your goal.
When our company’s goal was to expand from $1-2M to $5M, we focused on our strengths: the exceptional quality of our drying techniques and our customer relationships. After we identified what we did best, we could use that information to leverage our growth and expand our service lines.
If you can curiously and without blame or shame look at where you are weak, both individually and as a team, then you have the opportunity to make real progress. In fact, this is where you can get a huge boost in moving you from where you are now to where you want to be. Most people shy away from examining their weak points because they already feel inadequate or incapable. But, really looking at what you can do better is the only way to truly improve and change your current location. This should not be a fault-finding mission; it should be an information-gathering project from which you can create your new vision.
Do you know your numbers? If you don’t, that’s the place to start. What are you tracking and how do you streamline that to make it easy to track improvements?
There are certain processes and procedures that become part of company tradition or “the way we’ve always done things.” We do an exercise where we try to explain the way we do things to “an outsider,” to someone who had never worked for our company. If it doesn’t make sense to them, we question and reevaluate it. Sometimes we do this hypothetically and sometimes we have real leadership teams from actual companies come in and watch how we do things. Does it really make sense to continue doing it that way? An outside perspective can be invaluable in this process.
Notice how in each question, I start with where you are today. Often, when we try to project into the future, our mind flounders in the nebulous uncertainty. If you start with your feet firmly planted in today, you can ground yourself in reality and cast your mind forward to a place of vision. It gives your mind and your team somewhere concrete to start.
Creating a vision for your company is hard work, but don’t let it be overwhelming or stop you from harnesses the power of looking ahead. A clear, lofty vision really is the difference maker for all great companies.