"The very essence of leadership is [that] you have a vision. It's got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can't blow an uncertain trumpet."
— Theodore Hesburgh
Occasionally we will get a call from an organization we previously worked with, maybe one or two years prior. In many such cases, we would have performed an assessment of their data management infrastructure, practices, and staffing, and provided them with a set of recommended activities and a roadmap for improvement. They are calling to see if we can help with the implementation of those recommendations. On the call we ask how much they have accomplished in the two years since those recommendations were agreed upon and finalized. The answers we usually get essentially amount to: nothing. They haven't been able to work on it because other priorities came up. But they are ready now.
We’ve supported numerous organizations through stops and starts, and we know that competing priorities are a real challenge. Trust me, we get it.
But these types of conversations have me thinking about how quickly momentum can get lost. I imagine that organizational motivation would be at its peak just after a consulting engagement. And if it isn’t at that time, how are you going to reinvigorate that energy a few months or years later? And what about the next time a new priority pops up?
I have a suspicion of what is missing. Let me digress for a minute.
ENVISIONING THE FUTURE
Assessments are one of the most common types of projects we work on. These come in various forms, shapes, and flavors — data assessments, collection assessments, digital preservation assessments. They might have different labels, but they all share the same fundamental goal: to identify shortcomings in the current state of practice, and to chart a course for reaching an envisioned future state.
It’s the future state part that is really key.
Organizations that are at the “assessment” stage of their journey want to know:
How can we get from where we are today to the magical future state where all data is of high quality, all systems are state-of-the-art and seamlessly integrated, and roles and responsibilities are clear?
We can give you the answer to these questions. We can chart a course and provide the map.
But quite often when we begin working on these projects, we find the organization doesn’t have a vision of who they want to become, of where they want to go. In those cases, the challenge for us is that we are trying to create a map when we don’t know what the destination is.
Reaching the magical future state isn’t a matter of simply following the recommendations we deliver. It’s a major organizational transformation. And big transformational change effort requires more than just following a list of steps to be executed. First and foremost, it requires a vision of what your organization will become, of what you will be able to do that you can’t do now, once you reach this future state.
I would reframe the question, so that when you are starting an assessment process, what you really should be asking is something like:
How might my organization transform how we create, manage, and share data to enable new opportunities for —[you fill in the blank]—?
It might not be the question you reached out to us with. It sounds bigger, harder, more political. But, it’s the reason why you reached out to us in the first place. You want to change something big. You want to enable new opportunities.
The problem is that the new opportunities part is usually missing from the conversation. When we ask this question of clients, we consistently get two answers: increase access and enable efficiencies. Those are great goals, but they don’t amount to a vision.
VISION REQUIRES LEADERSHIP
To think about vision, we need to think about opportunities. So, what are those opportunities? They might be small at first. It’s sort of like when you commit to working out. At first, your vision is something vague, like weigh 30 pounds less so you can fit into your dream wedding dress. But, once you put in the work to get the weight off, you realize you are capable of things you didn’t know were possible. Suddenly you have goals like running a sub-60 minute 10k, or squatting 300 pounds. And you realize that these aren’t end goals, they are opportunities that arise when you transform into the person you want to be. You continue to reach for new opportunities that you become capable of as you transform into the future you.
Organizations need to have the same conversations with themselves. Unfortunately it’s a lot harder because instead of only needing buy-in from yourself, you need buy-in from a lot more folks. That’s where leadership comes in.
In order to tackle how your organization manages data, and to enable new opportunities, all stakeholders, and leaders in particular, need to be united around a shared vision. That vision should inspire people. You almost want to be able to see that vision on a Soviet-style propaganda poster. Can you picture a great graphic for “Create operational efficiencies!”, “seamless integration,” or “just do it because it will be better!”? Neither can I.
Without the rallying vision, even a modest one to start, the initiative is in a precarious position. It is hard to maintain momentum and resist distraction because it isn’t clear where the organization is going. It is hard to develop a strategy, because the objectives and metrics will be hollow. And it is hard for stakeholders to see their role in the outcomes, because they don’t know exactly what those are, or might have competing ideas. A compelling vision, while incorporating the input of all stakeholders, shaped and embraced by leadership, who drive it throughout the organization. Behavior and cultural change starts here.
ULTIMATELY IT’S ABOUT ACTION
I attended an event recently where one of the keynote speakers was talking about her company’s data management goals. She talked about things like integration of the tech stack, finding efficiencies in the content creation pipeline, implementation and improvement of machine learning algorithms — the usual stuff you hear at events like this. But these weren’t simply goals for their own sake. They were tied to a vision: personalization of search results. The company is working toward a future state where customers on their site or app see results that are highly relevant for them. And yes, to get there they will need to create efficiencies and they will need to increase access to their data. But those activities will be undertaken with a sense of purpose. Employees can easily understand how their work contributes to the ultimate goal when it is framed this way. Each baby step moves them a step closer to this vision. And I’m sure that as that vision starts to become a reality, they will tweak their goals, and continue to raise the bar to make their product even better.
Establishing a vision isn’t a once and done kind of thing. It’s an ongoing process. Actionable targets are needed. Transformations are long and hard. You don’t want a roadmap that’s going to be so difficult that it will take years and years before you see any results.
If I spent months and months running every day and I never got any faster, or was able to go further, or my blood pressure didn’t decrease, it would be difficult to see a reason to continue. But that’s not how it works. If I consistently put in the work, I will see those results. Your roadmap should work the same way. Be realistic, start small, create short term wins, celebrate these. Then, go back to the strategy and make changes as needed to move to the next stage (the organizational equivalent of losing 25 pounds, getting that 10k personal record, and then raising the bar to reach the next goal).
We can’t tell you what your vision should be. But we can help you get there. We can help you take the seed of an idea and mold it into a realistic, compelling vision to help get you started. We can help you create the strategy and roadmap to get there. We can help you with the implementation of those roadmap activities. And just like a personal trainer, we can help you realize new opportunities as you move closer to that vision, be there to celebrate your achievements, and help you move on to that next benchmark victory