‘If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea’.
Writer, poet and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s beautifully articulated perspective on motivating people gives us insight into the role of the visionary. But what does it mean to be one, why is it important to be a visionary and why is the strategist the right person to take on that role?
Nathan Myhrvold, former CTO of Microsoft is disparaging about people that call themselves visionaries, as he said, ‘being a visionary is a new profession, but it is really just a variant on fortunetelling, which may be the world’s oldest. And its marketing appeal is similar – people will pay for reassurance about the unknown’. The idea of the visionary being some type of modern soothsayer is rooted in the tendency of many self-proclaimed visionaries going along with the zeitgeist and telling people what they want to hear. While this is common, it is also runs counter to the role of the visionary.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote that ‘a visionary begins with a clean sheet of paper, and reimagines the world’. The visionary is there to solve a simple problem. As Steve Jobs said, ‘A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them’. Visionaries shape the future, challenge convention and finds innovative ways of answering big questions. Simon Sinek wrote that ‘people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it’.
This is where the visionary is most effective. Most people can articulate a problem or challenge they are facing. The visionary goes further, trying to understand the bigger, systemic issue that underpins or drives that superficial problem. This is the ‘why’ that Sinek is talking about, and the role of the visionary is to articulate and connect it to a greater motivation. This motivation is usually something to do with changing human behaviour, partly because that is at the root of so many of the challenges we face, and also as a way to make abstract ideas instantly relatable and understandable.
The strategist is perfectly positioned to fulfill the role of the visionary because of how interconnected vision and strategy are. As Sinek also wrote, ‘vision is a destination, a fixed point to which we focus all effort. Strategy is a route, an adaptable path to get us where we want to go’. The role of the strategist is to look across functions and industries, identify broader changes and work to assemble platforms and channels into a single solution, articulated in a way that showcases how the problem being solved is part of a bigger movement. People want to be inspired, and what can be more inspiring that understanding that solving their problem in a particular way is the first step in moving beyond problem solving and into remaking their industry? Bill Hybels wrote that ‘visionary people face the same problems everyone else faces; but rather than get paralyzed by their problems, visionaries immediately commit themselves to finding a solution’. They are problem solvers, but to be a truly great digital visionary, we have to look beyond the immediate problem and connect it with a broader opportunity.
This is particularly important in digital marketing. The immediacy and noise of our industry makes it difficult for people to take a visionary perspective. When narratives are set by media providers looking for nothing more than ever greater investments, when the industry is staffed by tactical technicians executing daily in digital platforms, when clients are pushing ever harder for greater short term results, the need for the visionary strategist is greater than ever. The visionary strategist understands the broader landscape. The visionary strategist starts with why, and tells a story with emotional resonance, with a bigger narrative to inspire action on behalf of the client and the team. And the visionary strategist has the belief in the vision to see it through. As Steve Jobs also said, ‘don’t let the noise of others opinions drown out your own inner voice’.
Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.