Beyond 'The Vision Thing.' (Management's New Way of Looking at Strategic Planning)

Article excerpt

May colleague Chip Bell tells me that when he was a youth growing up on a Georgia dairy farm, one of his chores was to herd the cattle in the evening. In order to be successful at this task, he had to learn bifocal vision, that is, he had to acquire the capacity to monitor each and every one of the cattle when in the midst of them while simultaneously looking ahead to where he needed to move them next.

The young farmboy can teach us a lot. Management gurus tout the importance of vision for leadership, and one cannot argue with that. But vision as it's usually presented - unidimensional, static, overgeneralized - is not enough. In order to really help the organization meet today's business requirements and prepare for tomorrow's, vision must be pragmatically and unabashedly bifocal: it must simultaneously paint a picture of the opportunities today and the "best bets" of tomorrow - and, when push comes to shove, it must prioritize the latter. To meet responsibilities to today's customers and investors, the leader with bifocal vision must insist that today's products and processes be continually improved and perfected. At the same time, in order to successfully prepare for the responsibilities to tomorrow's customers and investors, the leader must insist that the company pursue the development of tomorrow's products and processes. The latter charge not only means investing in riskier ventures that draw budget away from entrenched procedures and so-called cash cow outputs, but it often means letting go, even destroying, the status quo in pursuit of the new.

It all sounds paradoxical, but in fact the symptoms of bifocal vision seem to be demonstrated in a number of successful companies. Consider Microsoft. This $4.6 billion company has a higher stock market value than Caterpillar, Gillette, Time Warner, Texaco, Boeing and BankAmerica, even though Microsoft's sales and physical assets are a fraction of these companies.' Notwithstanding the recent antitrust consent decree that Microsoft signed with the Jjustice Department, bullish investors still anticipate that Microsoft's earnings potential in the future will be brighter than that of the above companies. This is in large part due to the fact that Microsoft creatively and relentlessly replaces, even cannibalizes, its successful offerings with new products and features that tomorrow's market will most likely gobble up.

Likewise, the investment community knows that in Microsoft's judicious joint ventures with companies in the entertainment, telecommunications and education industries, the company is positioning itself for tomorrow's breakthrough technologies and market demands.

Yes, Microsoft's attention to cost-efficiency, continuous improvement and zero defects represents one necessary leg of bifocal vision. But its top priority is to rapidly shift gears within the framework of its expertise so as to pounce on the opportunities of the future. Hence the creation of a new consumer division which has already pumped out a plethora of educational games and CD-ROM titles. Hence the acceleration of development cycles for ground-breaking products like Chicago, a system that creatively combines DOS and Windows and has a projected $1 billion in 1995 revenues.

Bifocal vision is also reflected in the strategic movements of other companies. Walt Disney continually invests in improving its flagship theme parks, and, despite the EuroDisney disappointment, the company is planning to build new and better theme parks, both domestically and abroad. Simultaneously, the company is relentlessly broadening its presence in software, movies and video entertainment, arenas that Disney executives expect will offer the greatest opportunities tomorrow. Likewise, AT&T aggressively expands and markets its traditional long-distance lines, but with its acquisitions of NCR and McCaw Cellular, the company seeks to marry computer strength with the explosive growth in wireless communications in order to create new personalized services of voice and image, many of which have not even been conceptualized yet. …