Vision-oriented and impact-oriented mindsets

I had this really interesting framing pop out during a chat with colleagues. It’s a bit contrived, but I found it useful. Imagine that there are two distinct ways to look at the work in front of us: vision-oriented and impact-oriented.

When we have a vision-oriented mindset, we see some future state of our surroundings and we try to move toward it. For this mindset, work is the means to make progress toward that future state – and we only do the work that we believe will take us there.

When we have an impact-oriented mindset, we want to make sure that our contributions matter. The work in front of us is the instrument by which we make an impact. When we’re in this mindset, we seek out work that is impactful.

Comparing the two, it seems that they are each other’s complement: an impact-oriented mindset does not require a specific vision to exist to guide the work, while the vision-oriented mindset does not need to make an impact. As long as the impact-oriented me makes a difference, I don’t really care if some vision is coming to fruition as a result of this work. Conversely, a vision-oriented me just wants the world to change in a specific way, and if nobody notices — that is alright.

Each mindset has its upsides and downsides.

Vision-minded folks tend to suffer from holding their vision too firmly. This, like clockwork, leads to blindspots that box us into a space that we refuse to get out of. Even if the desired destination is impossible, we keep trying and failing and trying again, railing against the laws of physics. The vision becomes part of our identity and any disconfirming evidence about this vision’s feasibility causes nearly physical pain.

By the way, this fusing of vision with identity is a good way to spot a vision-oriented mindset among your co-workers. They are usually characterized by their adherence to the vision: “the culture weirdo” or “the robots wonk”. I used to be “the Shadow DOM guy” and even drove a car with a personalized “SHDWDOM” license plate for some time.

Woe to the team who has a strongly vision-minded member with a vision unaligned with the team’s. They will stubbornly stick to doing what they believe matters, even though the rest of the organization doesn’t see it as contributing to the larger whole.

However, if an organization’s and individual’s visions are aligned, such folks become linchpins – they can make amazing things happen. Spotting a vision-minded candidate in such alignment is a treasure for any team. Just don’t make any changes in direction – the gift will turn into a curse right after the pivot.

Impact-minded folks tend to fall into the trap of opportunism. When I am optimizing for impact, I end up selecting work that will… well, make an impact. This tends to bias us toward immediate, shorter-term outcomes. I can still invest effort into longer-term ventures, but only if there’s a strong guarantee that they will succeed. In high-complexity environments, such combinations are rare.

Additionally, when we ourselves are vision-agnostic, we develop an intuition for spotting work that is seen as impactful by others. And it turns out that “seen” is subjective. People who evaluate potential impact could be wrong, leading us off the cliff. Or worse, we may discover that we can generate impact by doing work that looks awesome, but doesn’t actually yield any lasting benefits. Komoroske calls the latter “the appearance of heroic motion”.

At the organization level, a combination of complex problem space and overemphasis on impact can spiral into a veritable festival of Goodhart’s law. When everyone is searching for the next best metrics to define impact, and the meaning of metrics keeps collapsing under the optimization pressure, there’s a frantic churn of action, permeated by the overall sense of dread of the organization not actually going anywhere.

Conversely, if the team has strong, stable metrics and a lot of room to climb them, impact-minded folks are exactly the right fit. They will find the most effective way to ride it all the way to the top of the S-curve. However, you must be ready for these folks to suddenly become disoriented and unproductive when the growth slows. Once it becomes unclear where to go next, our impact-oriented selves can optimize the team to death. 

As one of my colleagues pointed out, an effective team needs a mix of both mindsets. The trick is that this mix has to shift pretty fluidly in complex spaces. It’s tough when a change in team direction suddenly turns the key contributors on your team into ornery naysayers. Or when it becomes hard to see where the team is heading in the chaff of heroic motion. I am not sure I have any great insights here, other than this: someone who can switch from one mindset to another, at least temporarily, is a truly precious find. If you’re gearing up for a long journey, those are the companions you want.

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