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Where We're Going (A Vision Story)

This lesson is a part of an audio course 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell by Paul Andrew Smith

A vision is a picture of the future so compelling, people want to go there with you. In other words, a story about the future. Now, unfortunately, what passes for a vision today is often just a vision sentence or a phrase like, “We want to build the world’s quietest jet engine.” Or “we want to be the fastest-growing restaurant chain on the East Coast.” Seriously? That’s a goal, not a vision. Here’s a better way that I stumbled across myself.

In 2002, I was asked to lead a group of forecasters whose job was to predict the future sales of new products. But, since you can’t predict the future perfectly, they knew their predictions were always going to be wrong. They just didn’t know if it’d be too high or too low and by how much. Well, to make matters worse, they were often under-trained, had forecasting models that were overly complicated or poorly documented, and were based on old data. Now my job was to lead them through whatever changes were needed to fix all that.

But the solution wasn’t something that I could just do for them; it would take a lot of work on their part. My challenge was to lay out a vision and hopefully inspire enough of them to do the hard work necessary to get there.

So I wrote them a vision story and it started out like this: below is a picture of the future. It’s my vision of what a day in the life of a sales forecaster could be in the near future. Now, some of you may feel you’re already pretty close to this and some may feel infinitely far away. Either way, I want to make this a vision that we all share, either by adding your ideas to it or embracing it as is, let me know what you think.

And in the subject line of the email, I wrote the vision: a day in the life of a sales forecaster. And the story it contained introduced Sheri, a sales forecaster two years in the future. And then the story simply followed Sheri through a single day at work. What she did, and the meetings she attended. And for the people reading it, it was clear how different her experience was from what they experienced day today. You know, the story followed Sheri to meetings that she previously wouldn’t have even been invited to because her opinion wasn’t valued as much before.

And then, instead of feeling uncertain when she answered questions in a meeting, she felt confident, because she’d been more properly trained and her models were updated with the most recent data. And instead of fumbling around in her forecast model, trying to figure out how it worked, and troubleshooting issues, she simply opened the new instruction manual and followed the instructions.

And as the story continued, it became clear that she experienced none of the typical frustrations a forecaster would be familiar with. And then the story closed at the end of the day when Sheri was walking out of a meeting. You know, two people thanked her for her great ideas and said that they really liked this new leadership role the forecasters seemed to be playing in the business. And the final words of the story read, “she hadn’t realized it before now, but she actually liked her job. It was a lot more fun to come to work when you know what you’re doing and that you’re having a positive impact on the results.”

Now, the first response I got to the email was, “oh wow, I want that to be my story two years from now. I’m in.” Well after a dozen or so responses like that, I knew I’d stumbled upon something right with the story.

So to craft a visual story of your own, start by deciding who will benefit most if your vision is achieved. Then choose a fictional character from that group to be the main character of your story and then just sketch out what a typical day at work will be like for them after your vision has been achieved. You know, make sure to include the type of activities that are both important to your audience and heavily impacted by having achieved the vision. Like, if your goal is winning in the marketplace, what’s better about that? Will employees be prouder to work there? If so, then maybe show your main character reading a flattering article about your company in Fortune magazine.

Or, if your goal is to grow sales and profits faster, what’s better about that? Will that mean bigger bonuses? Will it open up new job opportunities for your employees or create more challenging work? Whatever it is, show that in the story. And then, conclude with a summary of how your main character feels about the world he or she is living in and working in now compared to the way things were before, and that’s your vision story.

Okay, in the next lesson, I’ll introduce you to a strategy story.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith