This is the time of year when the majority of our clients and friends are working on "what’s next." The effort ranges from New Year’s resolutions, to budgets, to creating an entirely new vision and, (hopefully), strategy to go with it. Most often, we find these efforts produce predictions based on past experience, rather than launching a truly bold vision. Vision has more to do with a dream for the future than what's happened in the past. (We talk a lot about the differences in our book, Accelerate, in the section on Leadership Choice Point.)
In the book we emphasize that most "leadership" activity is based on looking backwards, reviewing results to-date, and building a plan forwards from that past. There is nothing wrong with this. As human beings our minds and memories are constructed to have a "database" that builds on past experience. If we didn't have a "cumulative learning ability" we would be helpless. Every moment would be new. We wouldn’t be able to find home at night, wouldn’t recognize it when we got there, and strangers would occupy it if we couldn’t draw effectively from our past experience. That’s the good news part.
The bad news part is that past-based predictions also keep us enslaved to what’s stored in our mental database, (or what we fondly call "the mental File Cabinet.") It keeps our attention on our limitations. For example, we know of a current head-hunter who is working on a placement. He has recently talked with a potential candidate and told him, “I can’t present you for this CEO job, for which you are an excellent candidate, because you don’t have a chemistry degree." By the way, the last CEO, (who failed), had a chemistry degree and the Board of Directors insists on the new candidates having one also. So it's an interesting issue. In this example, if a chemistry degree could predict and determine success, why did the previous guy fail? Why does it make it a given that this other outstanding candidate will fail because he doesn't have one? Somewhere in the past, this notion became a "predictor of success" and even in the face of evidence to the contrary, it's still being pursued. (This is why we used the strong language "enslaved" in the first sentence of this paragraph.)
It gets worse when we are in this predictive state and also creating and executing on a vision. Check your own thoughts here and see how often you can be truly creative and go for something that is not a projection of the current path of your life, your resume, your finances, your job – you know the drill… Borrowing from the article I will cite below, this is simply “remembering the future.”
The Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition on 12-12-10 included an article, “Why The Mind Sees the Future in the Past Tense,” by Matt Ridley in which the author points out that recent neuroscience studies show that the same parts of the mind hold our episodic memories and or imagined futures. Given the evidence here, it's no wonder the "predictable" dominates our thinking.
What excited me about the article were the studies that show that, “the more unexpected something is, the more conscious we are of it.” Your brain has to work harder when what shows up doesn’t match prediction, or expectation. What this means to me is that the most highly leveraged way to get yourself and your team in to powerful action is to start throwing new stuff in front of your collective brains. Create a BOLD vision that you can’t prove based on the past. You will be stimulated, more conscious, and therefore more present. You will be unleashing creativity instead of invoking your past experience, circumstances, knowledge (or lack of it), and limitations.
I am not being "Pollyanna" or encouraging "woo-woo" here. Once your new bold vision, or as we call it, “Yonder Star” is created, it’s time to be responsible for the past. It’s time to get very clear about your situation - “the way that it is and the way that it isn’t.” Looking from your Yonder Star as if it is already fulfilled, your mind will start discovering what it did to get there. It will get very excited about remembering. (Our partner, Alanna Levenson, calls that “creating future memories.”)
In his blog post, “Strategy Slam’”, a long-time colleague, Russ Phillips, recommends going to Denny’s by yourself with a pen and pad to do your creative thinking. I am much more creative in dialogue with other committed players. Many people wait for adversity to set in, and it will, sooner or later, to force themselves and their associates to get creative…"sort of a create or die strategy"…There are lots of ways to "get yourself there." What gets you in action for a bold inquiry? What’s your most creative environment? What calls forth your commitment? What stops you? These may be the most powerful questions you can ask yourself as you start planning for the next year.