The difference between vision and strategy and why it matters

When do you think the new year starts? It’s not a trick question, I know that 1st January is the start of the calendar year. But maybe it’s because I spent so many years in education, I still think the year begins with the start of the Autumn term. It always seemed that the slate had been wiped clean after the summer exams, and the start of the new year was the perfect opportunity to hit reset – to build on strengths and work on shortcomings.

So, to follow that logic, if July is the end of the previous year and September is the start of the new one, what is August? It is the primary month of the summer holidays, a time of rest and recovery. It is also the perfect time to pause for breath, take stock of where you are at – personally and professionally – and dream about your most important strategic initiatives for the coming year.

Why dream? 

One of the things I have noticed over the many years I have been working with individuals and teams across multiple businesses is that people don’t know how to do meaningful, long-term strategic planning work. Some of the most frustrating meetings I have been in were billed as “strategy sessions”, which, all too often, would get bogged down in minutiae because there was no underlying sense of direction or purpose to guide the process of strategic thinking. 

That’s why I think it’s most important to start with a dream, or if you prefer, a vision of the future that you are trying to bring to life. A vision provides the clarity you need – the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ – to inform the ‘how.’ All the strategic initiatives you will employ to make your dream a reality. An effective way to tap into the power of your imagination is to undertake a guided visioning exercise that can transport you from your current reality into a vividly imagined, desired future state. 

“A dreamer can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.”

Oscar Wilde

Train like an athlete!

The human mind has a remarkable capacity to visualise. However, some researchers have found that the human brain doesn’t differentiate between real and imagined experiences. As an example, elite sportspeople are trained by sports psychologists to use powerful visualisation techniques to put themselves into imaginary competitions, picture multiple outcomes of races and matches and rehearse how they will react ahead of time. Are you winning but coming under pressure? Are you behind and need to attack? Do you have to nail the match-winning shot? Hundreds of times, all scenarios can be dealt with in the mind. What is interesting, however, is that when sports scientists attach their subjects to sensors, they can detect physiological reactions in the body, stimulated by the visualisations, just as if they were physically moving.

The use of visualisation techniques can make a big difference in sports competitions. For example, I remember one of the best days of racing I ever had in my single sculling boat – a sequence of four races in a knockout competition leading to a final which I won against the form book – was also a day which I rehearsed and planned meticulously with a series of visualisations.

Becoming a visionary

I applied the same techniques when I set up my own business. I employed visualisation to imagine as completely as I could what my business would look like: how it would look and feel to walk through the door and experience being in the office, how we would interact with the clients and conduct business, and what would the technology be like, even down to the aroma of the coffee we would serve. I remember walking into my office some years later and being taken aback because the physical experience I had at that moment was precisely the one I had visualised several years before.  I had dreamed it first, then made the dream come true.

One of the essential roles of a business leader is to be a visionary. First, leaders must develop a clear picture of what they want the business to be like, the clients they want to serve, the people they employ and the working environment they want to create. Then they need to communicate their vision in such a clear and compelling way that they can enrol people in their dream.

* * *

So, as you sit by the pool and enjoy some well-earned time off, close your eyes and imagine… if you were walking into your business in five years, what are you experiencing? What clients are you serving, and how do you want to help them? What does it feel like to work in your business as part of your team? 

The great thing about visualisation, just as I found when I was competing, is that you can keep re-running the movie until you get to a version you like.

Enjoy the summer! Dream big.