A vision and a hallucination

Talking with one of my colleagues, we found this simple lens. We both arrived independently at the idea that one of the strongest ways to instill coherence within an organization is aligning on some more or less unified intention. After all, organizations are problem-solving entities. And as follows from the framework I’ve been going on about, intention is the force that brings an organization together. Put differently, emergence of an organization is the effect of imposing an intention.

How might this intention be communicated? We picked a well-worn concept of the “compelling vision” to play with. The distinction that we’ve drawn is that some visions, when articulated, appear to enroll everyone to align with the intention they communicate. And some visions come across more like hallucinations: we hear them and may even be fascinated by them, but little alignment in intention materializes. My colleague used Yahoo’s “get its cool back” from a decade ago as an example of such a hallucination. Some good things did come out of that endeavor, so there’s likely a spectrum rather than a binary distinction.

So what makes one story a vision and the other a hallucination? I am sure there are many possible explanations. I, however, want to mess with the newly-derived limits framing to explore the question.

To be compelling, a vision must be posed as a solution. That is, a vision is a prediction that is based on an understanding of some problem. A resonant vision captures the full mental model of the problem: the “what is” and the “what ought to be”, as well as a plausible path to the latter. Thus, communicating a vision is an attempt to share the mental model.

It is in this process of communication that the vision’s fate is determined. We share mental models through stories. And when telling such a story, the one who communicates it must overcome all three limits to understanding these mental models — both their own and those of their recipients.

To overcome the limit of capacity, I need to ensure that the story matches the mental model diversity of those I am sharing it with. There is a distinct upper and lower bound. The mental model behind the story needs to be within the limit of tolerance: not too complex and not too simplistic. If I tell you that my vision is that “we must do good-er”, you may recognize that my mental model diversity is lower than yours, turning my vision into a hallucination. Conversely, if I write effusively and at length about animating forces, lenses, and tensions (as I regrettably do), the mental model will bounce off of you, suffering the same fate. The limit of capacity is about the balance of clarity and rigor.

The limit of time manifests as the plausibility of the vision. We notice this limit when we see the “5-year” or “10-year” qualifiers attached to vision docs. When I communicate the vision’s story, I must have a sense of when this vision will come true. On their part, the recipients of the story, once they acquire the mental model behind the vision, will intuit its feasibility. They may go “yeah, that feels right” or balk at the overly ambitious timelines. I once suggested at the leads offsite that a product that hasn’t even shipped will have one million users next year. My colleagues were nice to me, but I was clearly hallucinating. A good way to remember this limit is to imagine me painting pictures of some clearly impossible future and folks quietly rolling their eyes.

The final limit — the limit of attachment — is the trickiest. Suppose I’ve told the story clearly. You get exactly what I mean, and see the respectable depth of the mental model. You also see that my vision is plausible. Yay! We overcame the first two limits. But… is it where you want to go? Imagine that, in playing with this mental model, you recognize with dread that pursuing it would negatively impact your career or perhaps compensation — or both. Or you might see some effect on the environment or surrounding community that is in conflict with your principles. Does my story contain room for flexibility? And if not, how might you work around it? In communicating our vision, we encounter the limit of attachment as the resistance to change – and always, always, any alignment of intentions means change.

It is here where the visions most commonly transmute into hallucinations. No matter how well-articulated and rigorous, no matter how plausible, if we are firmly attached to our particular outcomes, we won’t be able to align our intentions toward some common goal. What’s worse, there is very little that I can say in my story to overcome this limit. The limit of attachment is a structural property of the organization.

Lisa Laskow Lahey and Robert Kegan called this limit the “Immunity to Change”, and it is my intuition that most organizations and leaders have only vague awareness of it. My guess is that the limit of time is the best-understood of the three, while the limit of capacity is the one which most strategy-minded folks get exhausted and burned out overcoming. The limit of attachment shows up spuriously in conversations here and there (usually characterized as “politics” and “shenanigans” or “this team getting mad at us”), remaining almost entirely submerged in the vast subconscious of the organization. It is the embodiment of thousands of stories told and retold within the organization, a zombie horde against which no single new story stands a chance.

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