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Another Look At Vision
By Robert Fritz

 In my book The Path of Least Resistance I describe two distinct orientations: Reactive/Responsive and Creative/Generative. The first is when circumstances are the driving force within one's life, and the only actions people can take is to either react against or respond to the situations they are in. The Creative/Generative orientation tells a vastly different story. In this case, the person is aware of the circumstances he or she is in, but the driving force is not the situation but the choices one makes.

All of us have been taught to think in terms of circumstances. Yet when circumstances are the prime mover in your life, your choices are limited to two basic types of actions: to react or respond. Most people think that if you move from reacting against the circumstances you are in to responding to the circumstances you are in, you have made progress. Society itself has the goal of people responding appropriately to norms, manners, rules, ideals, common wisdom, and so on. While reacting seems different from responding, the causal power is exactly the same: the circumstances.

Even in organizational life, reacting and responding is the dominant orientation, much to the detriment of creativity, innovation, productivity, and high performance. Think of "best practices." The underlying assumption is that there is a right way to respond. Think of "situational management or leadership." The situation comes with prescriptions of how to act. Here is the situation, and here is what you should do about it.

And how many organizations react to the circumstances of quarterly financial performance, to the myopic shortcoming of their long-term health and well-being? This thought process is one major reason the economy is in such trouble.

To shift from a reactive/responsive to creative/generative question, we need to shift the question we ask ourselves, from: How should I act? to: What do I want to create?

We create a vision. Now this term has come to mean warm and fuzzy platitudes that are devoid of substance and power. People often say they have a vision when they don't. And so the notion of vision has lost its sense of meaning and moved away from an understanding of its true power. But in the creative process vision is that single factor that allows us to imagine beyond the circumstances and reach something truly original, something that could not be thought about if all we were doing is responding to the circumstances. It is vision that reaches beyond our current limitations and becomes the focal point to our creative process.

I think the word vision can seem too highfalutin and pretentious. It can smack of the flighty dreamer who builds castles in the air and is out of touch of the planet earth. But real vision is simply a picture of a desired outcome we want to create. Here are a few principles to notice: outcome, picture, create.

The creative process is the opposite of problem solving. In problem solving, the focus is on situations we don't want. Our orientation is circumstantial and our actions are taken to get rid of what we don't want, not to create what we do want. Many people brag that they are dedicated problem solvers. They don't understand the reality that all of the problem solving in the world won't bring about what they want. If you got rid of all of your problems, you still won't have what you want. You will have spent a lot of time and energy, spinning your wheels, but not getting anywhere. And while problem solving has its place, if that's mostly what you do, you aren't going to go very far.

Think of the iPod. If Steve Jobs had simply responded to the prevailing circumstances, we would just be walking around with better Walkmans. There were many MP3 players around before the iPod. But no one was buying them. What did Jobs envision? First he asked himself a pretty basic question: what do people want? And the answer was obvious: music they wanted to listen to in a convenient form. So another MP3 player on the market wasn't going to do a lot. But the vision wasn't a better piece of equipment. It was about people having the music they wanted anywhere they were. And so Jobs began to make deals with the major record companies, set up iTunes, a site to distribute the music, and the principle of downloading directly from that site rather than going to the store to buy CDs.

Jobs' vision of the outcome he wanted to create was as far from an empty platitude as can be.

Vision is visual. There are many benefits to a visual language. One is the amount of information that a picture contains. It is dimensional rather than linear. You can see relationships among the various parts.

Also thinking in pictures forces you to be concrete. There is little room for the vague, because you will not be able to see a picture unless you have decided on vital elements of the creation. And vision is an evolutionary step in the creative process. Before we are ready to have a vision, we may explore ideas. But at the vision stage we have moved from the many possibilities the creation might be, and decided on one. This is a profound choice in the process. We can imagine how Jobs envisioned how people would be using the iPod. Had he simply conducted customer surveys, he never could imagine the iPod, because no one could have known to want it. This shows the limitation of simply responding to customers.

Vision becomes the organizing principle that leads to the next set of actions in the creative process. We create on behalf of our vision. Now we begin to think of the circumstances we are in, not in a reactive/responsive way, but to locate where we are in relationship to where we want to be. Of course, this is structural tension, the dynamic that propels us toward the creation of our vision by taking strategic action. The question “How should I act?” transforms into "What actions do I need to take to create my vision?" Some of those actions will be obvious and simple conventions. Best practices in this context might be useful. But more often, the circumstances are not conducive to convention. We don't have enough time, or money, or other resources. The times are never right to create anything. If we wait for perfect conditions, we will wait forever. So we are motivated to invent, innovate, and originate new actions and processes.

Through the creative process, we are able to reach far beyond the circumstances we find ourselves in. Our motivation isn't a reaction or response to those circumstances, but a different dynamic urge, that of creating our lives around those things that matter the most to us.

©2009 Robert Fritz

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Updated: 10/24/10