Even Our Success Gets in the Way of Our Aspirations

2014 began for me by reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. As the New York Times Review of Books accurately observed, this is “a serious look at the science of habit formation and change.” Part two, The Habits of Successful Organizations should be required reading for anyone who cares deeply about the enterprise they’re leading.

My recent ‘aha’ was that it’s not only our habits that gets in the way, but even our past successes and current capabilities actually converge to limit future impact. This insight came when facilitating an intense three-week engagement with The Clay Studio (TCS) in Philadelphia. TCS is a highly-regarded 40 year old community arts organization for whom we had just recently facilitated a strategic planning process. While the plan contained worthy objectives, the board and staff were still searching for that grand and compelling vision to rally behind.

So TCS, at the behest of President Chris Taylor, gathered curators, artists, board members and staff to engage in a visioning process in support of their impending move to a new facility. We employed such prompts as Building Your Company’s Vision, by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras; Simon Sinek’s provocative Ted Talk (How Great Leaders Inspire Action) about “The Golden Circle;” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s stirring I Have a Dream speech from 1963.

Then, as the group wrestled with the assignment: illustrate The Clay Studio and the influence you see it having on the world, there emerged a set of phenomenal pictures of the future, ones that exemplified a powerful current across a newly imagined network of allies, a robust and more entrepreneurial business model, and most intriguing–-new and more qualitative metrics through which to understand and communicate success and impact. All these offered new pathways toward actually changing the world vs. simply responding to it.

While describing the world one want to help create is a very refreshing discussion, when done in a way that truly challenges one’s prevailing notions about purpose and priorities, and that calls into question the very things the organization has gotten good at, really raises the stakes and demands sustained focus, vivid imagination, and stamina; all of which the TCS team brought to the table in abundance.

So, as you and your organization look to the future, it might be helpful to keep the following in mind:

  • A truly worthwhile vision must be informed by the reasons the organization considers its existence to be relevant to the future.
    Why trumps what!
  • In order to imagine and articulate such a vision, the organization must set aside some things it holds dear.
    Prior success, current practice, and prevailing assumptions must all be up for grabs!
  • Those participating in such an endeavor must accept that the more difficult the work, the more legitimate the vision.
    Some work can be hard, yet deliciously so!
  • The work and words of others can be tremendously helpful.
    Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I Have a Dream” not, “I have a Plan”!
  • Having a vision and a strategy matter.
    While the future is merely an abstraction, it’s shaped by those who express a mandate to influence it!

Thanks to the folks at TCS for this compelling learning journey together!!

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