Failing to Think Big Holds Us Back

One of the results of aversion to risk and fear of failure, for both individuals and organizations, is a world in which we rarely pursue audacious goals or visions. In fact, those who do are truly outliers.

Relatedly, we are typically socialized in professional contexts to be “realistic” rather than daring in our thinking and strategizing. Interestingly, on the other hand, we are frequently incentivized to pursue aggressive performance goals, often confusing those with bold strategic goals. Even when we are successful with big stretch goals related to performance, however, those successes are short term and, by themselves, usually do not support sustainability.

I’ve been facilitating strategic visioning and planning activities for about 15 years, both in organizations I have led and those for whom I’ve consulted. One reason I have always pushed for bold thinking is that when we edit ourselves while we’re still brainstorming, we dramatically limit the possibilities, and of course, our future achievements as well. The reason to think big in terms of a strategic vision (which may be different than strategic goals) is not so that we actually achieve our most audacious dreams (although that can happen). The value is that we do great, previously unachievable things simply through the process of going beyond what we thought was possible or likely. The most daring goals also tend to be about things that are bigger than the daily grind and thus ensure that we are engaged in pursuits that are also bigger than ourselves. By aggressively moving the goalposts, by definition we broaden what’s possible to achieve on the playing field. One way I achieve this kind of thinking is by building in a component of strategic planning that I call, “crazy talk.” It is an opportunity specifically designed to elicit the most outlandish ideas. The editing comes later and I always try to ensure that at least a couple of the crazy talk concepts make it into the plan. Unfortunately, due to the cultural pressures against bold thinking, I often find myself swimming up stream!

As an example, not long ago, I was leading a senior leadership team through a strategic planning process and they found it really difficult to talk about being the leader in their field, being much more comfortable with being a leader. They were down right perplexed when I asked them in what ways they could change the world. First, they had never been “set free” to think like that, but secondly they were burdened with the fear of articulating a vision that was frankly not likely to be fully achieved. We spent some time discussing this and it became clear that they felt it was “safer” to commit to a path that they were more likely to attain, even if that meant a much less compelling or even sustainable future. Their concern turned out to be quite rational when I discovered that their Board of Directors was equally cautious! This is unfortunately common in contemporary organizations.

This same phenomenon limits us individually as well. In another recent conversation in which I was interviewing for a potential chief executive role, I made the comment that a core motivation for me personally was for my professional efforts to actually make the world a better place. One of the interviewers skeptically replied that my objective might be a little impractical!

We all know intuitively that the greatest innovators and entrepreneurs and strategists are not driven or hemmed in by practicality. Most of what is truly creative and sublime in this world would not exist if the creators had been “realistic” and “practical.” Giving ourselves license to dream, regardless of our specific role in an organization, not only increases the likelihood that our contributions will bring far greater value, but it will also increase our own personal sense of accomplishment and purpose.

Thinking big has significant implications for leadership as well. In slower change, less complex, and less volatile operating environments, more conservative, status quo thinking is quite defensible. In the world in which most leaders operate today, however, those who think boldly, embracing risk and an audacious vision for the future are the “game changers” that most organizations need. Thinking big does not guarantee success, but it does tend to inoculate us against a slow death from doing the same things the same way until we have to turn the lights off for the last time.

Of course, as leaders we must also honor big thinking in those around us as well. As noted in a previous article, we must create environments that support innovation, which, by definition, requires that we give everyone in organizations the freedom to think boldly. As Eric Schmidt, co-founder of Google has said, you need to position your employees to be thought leaders. In fact, over time, far more innovation comes from the large number of people that make up most of an organization than from the C-suite.

Because so few organizations truly support bold, audacious thinking, those that do have a genuine competitive advantage. Whether you are engaged in developing strategic paths to the future or supporting innovative solutions for pressing ongoing challenges, game changing breakthroughs require the courage to think big—to dream about how things might be if we simply unshackle ourselves from the typical organizational constraints against creativity and risk.

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