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The Flash of Vision is Not Enough

I recently debriefed with an executive staff that I had taken offsite a few weeks earlier. While they were engaged in many new initiatives and had adopted many of the new agreements they made as a group, they told me they were disappointed and disillusioned. Their expectation was that the flash of insight and enthusiasm they discovered and embraced offsite would somehow change everything at their company immediately. Unfortunately, the expectation that inspiration should carry them made the perspiration needed for implementation seem mundane and even somewhat onerous.

As leaders, we often idolize the flash of vision that changes everything in an instant. We are conditioned to love the brilliant insight. Like the swift attack of the hawk, that moment of truth flies in from nowhere and changes everything—at least for the prey. An organization's status quo (like that unsuspecting creature) does not ask to be challenged, attacked or changed. Despite what the advertising slogans claim, organizations do not often or readily embrace change. If they did, every project would be successful, every new software rollout would run flawlessly and every re-organization would be without angst or costly delay.

But the hawk is easily sated and quickly finishes feeding. The prey's conversion has, however, only begun. A different capacity is needed to continue and complete the change. Leaders who are not able to create and fully integrate a change initiative often leave a corpse on the balance sheet, draining the life and profits out of their organization. It is readily observed in companies that merge and generally destroy both cultures but fail to build a resilient new one. We also see countless projects that begin, but are not sustained. In the wake of such beginnings, old processes no longer function fully but neither are new ones fully in place.

The Exit the Hawk.  Enter the Vulture

To fully integrate a change, we need to become acquainted with another bird—one whose work is of a different sort than the thrill and flash of the raptor. This ally for change can make one uncomfortable; I am referring to the carrion eater and scavenger—the ubiquitous vulture. While the instantaneous “Aha! Moment” produces a new possibility, it is the slow and organic work of implementation that brings the change to fruition, finishing what the hawk can only begin. Implementation is not dramatic. It is unhurried by nature and has none of the drama of the hawk's death-dive from the heights. The organic process of absorption gives the idea form and substance, and brings the change process to a state of full absorption and execution.

Look at our media images of success. We showcase the moment when a scientist shouts “ Eureka !” not the months or years of experimentation. Our attention in the press is focused on the announcements of change, not on the hard work needed to bring them about. Today we admire the flash of brilliance and often ignore the slower process of integration. But it was not always so.

Many civilizations honored the vulture as sacred. In some Native American cultures, only the holy men were allowed to hold, possess or wear vulture feathers. Those cultures were closer than ours to the land. Perhaps they were more attuned to nature's fuller cycle of change while the efficiency of today's media and technology insulates us from the full story in favor of the more exciting sound bite.

The most recent research tells us that business, government, NGOs and other global entities spend roughly $300 billion per year on change projects. Of that number, roughly 75% are considered failures. What can be at the root of such significant financial loss, not to mention suffering at work? Could it be our love affair with the hawk? Or, could it be that the root is in our less passionate interest in vulture work?

In his book Execution, The Discipline of Getting Things Done , Larry Bossidy warned of our love affair with the hawk, writing, “And never launch an initiative unless you're personally committed to it and are prepared to see it through until it's embedded in the DNA of an organization.” In heeding Bossidy's counsel, the vulture is your ally.

The work of the vulture is unglamorous and a protracted process rather than the flash of inspiration. (And, yes, it is a metaphor for the distinction between the carcass of a new idea left to rot on the corporate books and the successful implementation of a mission-critical change project.) Successful change demands that we honor both the hawk and the vulture. It is easy to see that the organic processing of ideas cannot happen without new insights to feed upon. Yet the idea alone has insufficient impetus to overcome the odds of project demise. Do you want to beat the 75% failure rate? It is not as hard to do as you might think.

When you are lining up projects to undertake for the coming year (or quarter), look past the rosy projections of ROI. Order your projects based on your ability to execute and remain engaged until they are ingested and digested by your organization. Any project that does not have an informed and capable sponsor who is willing to see it through “…until it is embedded in the DNA of an organization” is a candidate to be dropped, no matter how powerful the vision that drives it. Like overlooked carrion, a project half completed is of little value.

People who have been in the woods to see the spectacular folded-wing plummet of a raptor remember it for a lifetime. They tell the story to friends and acquaintances over and over. Very few of us, however, would have the same thrill over the feeding habits of the vulture. I do not mean to assert that either the hawk or the vulture role is more critical to the success of a change initiative than the other; instead, I hope to call attention to where we are focused as a society (and as leaders of change) and remind us all that the flash of vision is not enough.

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