How exciting to be on a yacht that sets sail with no idea of where it’s going – just heading out of the harbour to see where the winds and currents take it. Self-isolation on the seven seas, the exhilaration of the unknown; the adrenalin of trying to avoid hidden rocks; the thrill of going ashore in unknown territory – possibly hostile, possibly friendly. The challenge of not knowing whether you have enough fresh water and food to last until the next landfall.
How exciting: and how terrifying. And, if we translate the metaphoric boat to being a business, how risky for your crew and your shareholders. They might be learning a lot: they might even be, if you’re lucky, adrenaline junkies who enjoy the ride. But for most people, a sense of direction, of purpose, is vital to teamwork and team morale. It is also more likely to result in ‘success’.
Why are so many businesses happy to follow the wind and tide? Why don’t they have a clearer sense of purpose? The emphasis of the question is on ‘clearer’: most have a sense of direction but it just isn’t clear. When we talk to any of the senior people in a business individually they will give us a reasonably clear picture of where they think their business needs to be in three years: the issue is that each of these pictures is different, and if you could overlay them on each other, they would make a Venn Diagram, with surprisingly little ‘intersection’ or common ground.
This is very dangerous for the crew, who will be taking their orders from their specific director if there is no aligned purpose that they are aware of: the marketing crew might be showing the world their interpretation, a voyage to Italy, whilst the HR crew might be recruiting people who speak Albanian.
In the short term, it is often perceived as not mattering: a small degree of difference in the journey from London by the year-end means the difference between Dover and Folkestone: we can live with that!
So it doesn’t get done in the short-term: it’s easier not to rock the boat. But it needs doing if you are serious about getting somewhere worthwhile. You need a Purpose, and you need it to be something that everyone – the officers and the crew – knows about, understands and is excited by, so they can do what they do in the knowledge that it all adds up to something. It’s remarkable how much a team with a Purpose can achieve, and actually enjoy it too: and how much hard work can add up to very little in a team without one.
The boring management mantra ‘To fail to plan is to plan to fail’ was countered by John Lennon with ‘Life is what happens while you’re making plans’. Both are right. You need a plan and then you need to modify it, taking into account changing currents and winds, but also the knowledge you accumulate as you make your journey and the destination comes into clear view.
One final observation: the Sirens. These seductive opportunities will be there and will draw your attention, but the path to reaching them is fraught with hidden rocks. It’s only when you know what you are and where you’re going that you’ll know how to decide which can help you achieve your aims and which will leave you stranded.