If asked why people like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg are admired the answer is easy; they are seen as visionaries. The light bulb, the modern assembly line, Mac products, and Facebook were solutions to services that needed a better approach. It’s not limited to just industry. Visionaries such as Thomas Jefferson, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King changed concepts on philosophy and civil rights. Currently there is excitement as to if Google or Apple will bring automotive innovation with a “driverless car.” (See some videos here)

The point is, visionaries are valued because they are people who see the future and see a better way. Let me ask, however, where does vision start?

Ideas for the future begin with understanding the present.

Do gifted visionaries wake one morning with brilliant concepts fully formed and ready to launch? No, ideas about how to improve things come first from having a clear and insightful understanding of the current circumstances. Without this there is no urgency to fix anything because no problems are seen to be solved. Understanding this and becoming a person who contributes toward a clear understanding of present circumstances is key a strong planning strategy.

I have shared in prior postings the five steps to planning anything and the importance of Step 1, the “Why.” In this posting we will take a look at step 2 of the plan; a clear understanding of the current circumstances.

Examples of the lack of the ability to understand what was going on are abundant (and easy to spot) in retrospect. Blockbuster Video not understanding the weakness of their business model and the potential threat of Netflix is a recent business example. History certainly has it’s own tragic outcomes as a result of lacks of discernment. Erik Lawson’s recent bestseller In the Garden of Beasts is a fascinating look at how the citizens of Berlin went about their daily life not recognizing the growing power and menacing behavior of the new German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, right in front of them. Histrionics aside, there always seems to be those full of new ideas (workable or not) but those who truly understand how they might apply to current circumstance are preciously few. If you can be one of those people you will add value to anything you plan or any groups with whom you work.

The world is full of people with ideas (good or otherwise), those who truly understand the current circumstance are few. If you can do this, you will add value.

So, I hear you asking, “If understanding present circumstances is vital wouldn’t I have to be some kind of research wiz to do that? Wouldn’t I need to know how to unlock all the secrets of Excel and present fancy data?” Not necessarily. Whether in your own planning or working in a group the ability to understand circumstances often starts with someone simply being willing to put a pause on before moving forward.

In order to grow this skill I would offer these three practical steps:

  1. Seek to be sure you truly understand the assignment/goal.
  2. Seek to remove any bias you may have.
  3. Seek to be a truth-teller.

First, before you move ahead in either a personal plan or a group’s work you must understand where you are (or the work) is going. This is part of the “Why” referred to in the last posting but is a bit more granular. People (and groups) are impatient by nature and will move forward simply for the sake of moving forward if left to their own devices. Moving forward with purpose, however, is the key to a successful plan. Seek to be the one to ask important questions before moving to solve perceived challenges. Is this the most efficient use of our time, our talent, our resources? How do these steps align with where we are going? Do these actions truly move us forward or is it just “sideways” energy? Think through questions like this and take time to research and see if anyone else has solved problems this way before. Forewarned is forearmed as they say and intentional footwork on your part could have big payoffs in stopping unneeded work or a bad plan from happening.

Very few people are self-aware enough to separate their biases, good or bad, from work that needs to be done.

Second, seek to remove any biases you may have toward the work. Bias initially sound like a negative word but it covers both good and bad presuppositions we bring to a project without possibly realizing it. Everyone carries biases about a goal or a project. You may really want the work to succeed but is it for the right reasons or is there an unhealthy self-worth issue tied up in this desire somewhere? In some cases you may find yourself indifferent or even ambivalent about a group project. Why is that and is that indifference keeping you from generating helpful solutions? Very few people are self-aware enough to separate their biases, good or bad, from work that needs to be done. This ends in bad conclusions, wasted energy, and failed expectations. My friend, John Kramp of The Riverstone Group, really crystallized this thought for me with his coaching on the concept of seeking to approach any assessment without being overly optimistic nor overly pessimistic. This incredibly valuable insight will help you set realistic goals in your own plans or help keep a group honest and anchored. This is a skill anyone can develop over time. It simply involves slowing down and examining the true purposes, motives, and reasons behind the goal and then coming at it with a “third person” mentality. Are the next action steps aligned with the purpose? Are they addressing the source of the problem or are they simply treating a symptom of it? Don’t be fooled into steps that pull you or the group off the true problem, no matter how exciting the works seems or who is supporting the ideas.

Lastly, be willing to be the truth-teller. We often are incredulous at some athletes, politicians, or celebrities when they say or do something totally off the wall. Often this comes from the fact they have become so surrounded by people who won’t tell them “no” that they have lost contact with reality. The same is true for us. Whether personal planning or working with a group someone has to be willing to tell the truth, even if you and others don’t want to hear it. Granted, this is hard work and there is much context here that we will explore in a future post but if you are not willing to be the “truth-teller” then your insights go nowhere and help no one. No one adds value by saying “I thought that might happen” after a plan fails. The one, however, who is willing to say “I may be wrong here but these are my concerns about moving forward”, can be very valuable. Note, the concerns have to be valid or else you risk being that person who doesn’t think anything will succeed. That person doesn’t add value either. As the wise counsel I received goes, approach it seeking not to be too optimistic or too pessimistic.

It takes practice and insight in regard to how to share info and concerns appropriately without losing your own influence. If, however, you can be that person who stops a bad plan from going forward (in your own planning or as part of a group) rather than one who was part of a failed plan you will establish yourself as a team member of great value. Only once you know you accurately understand current circumstances should you seek to move to the next step: a clear understanding of the future circumstances.

Next up: A clear understanding of the future circumstances once the goal is achieved.