When John F. Kennedy appeared before a joint session of Congress in Washington DC on May 25, 1961, he brought along an idea with huge ramifications. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” Kennedy said, declaring his vision to the legislators. Eight years later, on July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon. Immense forces were unleashed when Kennedy made his famous speech stating publicly this goal.
This situation was quite different in Germany: during the election campaign in 1980, former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt once said that a person with visions would be better off going to the doctor. With these words, Schmidt initially dealt a lasting blow to the notion of the vision. Visionary ideas and visionaries have thus been interpreted very differently in various countries throughout history. Since that time, the vision has been rehabilitated in Germany and also enjoys a good reputation globally.
After all, there are sound arguments for one: a vision can give purpose and combine forces. It can bring focus to a goal and provide the perspective necessary in a world that’s becoming more and more complex. Everything is connected to everything.
Our economies are more interconnected than ever these days.
Peter Klimek,physicist at the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna
But what is a vision and what does it mean for a company? By definition, a vision is first and foremost an idea of an ideal condition in the future. So it’s a strategic goal that provides orientation. A pathfinder in the jumble of constant change. A type of multifunctional tool in the jungle of complexity that can be used to overcome obstacles and head off in the right direction at the innumerable forks in the road.
Yet that’s not everything. There are also aspects of what is called purpose, and for some time now this has come to mean a new concept. It brings together a company’s objective with its understanding of its role in the world. It embodies the idea that employees aren’t just driven by remuneration and career opportunities, but by a sense of meaning and the pursuit of a common goal.
However, every vision is therefore only of value when it is combined with clever and flexible implementation, particularly in a complex world. “It always depends on what you make of the vision,” says economist Nitin R. Joglekar. He investigates innovation and management processes at the Boston University Questrom School of Business. In 2012, he and his colleague Edward G. Anderson published the book The Innovation Butterfly. Referring to the butterfly effect, they describe the potentially enormous effects the smallest changes can have in complex systems.
Joglekar calls such changes innovation butterflies. They can be ideas or inventions, but also changes in project plans. They first appear as inconspicuous disturbances but then expand into largescale effects through the interwovenness of complex systems. One example Joglekar cites is Nintendo’s development of the Wii game console. Instead of investing in ever better graphic simulations, Nintendo instead focused on more intuitive controls for the console, developing a completely new controller. What initially appeared to be a small change ended up turning whole areas of the industry completely upside down.
To deal effectively with such sudden developments, companies should continually question their vision, Joglekar recommends. Not daily, not every week, but regularly. This requires flexibility, continuous change, perseverance and a comprehensive overview—only then can a company infuse a vision with the life it needs.
Joglekar describes in his book what this means in practice: companies should do everything in their power to gain as complete an overview of their industry as possible. They must learn to identify disruptive disturbances early enough with the help of large amounts of data and artificial intelligence so as to then quickly and flexibly react to them. To ensure this works, they must decentralize decision-making, create agile structures and establish a culture in which problems are viewed as opportunities instead of obstacles.
This means a lot of work for companies— but above all else also a huge opportunity. Those who recognize innovation butterflies or other market or technology changes early enough—or even drive such changes themselves—won’t be overwhelmed by the later effects but can take advantage of them.
Complex systems aren’t just an opportunity. They’re also an invitation to try things out and advance your own ideas. They are a wide field of possibilities. Going forward with flexibility, perseverance and an overview of the surroundings gives you a good chance of turning a vision into reality.