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You have to believe in your vision, even though it’s wrong

Your company vision is a bet on the future. As such, it is bound to be wrong. And yet, it is critical to have one and to believe in it. Here is why.

Gavrilo Bozovic

At the beginning of his book on the history of the Persian empire, Pierre Briant quotes from a song:

“And even if it’s wrong, you have to believe in ancient history.”

Pierre Briant is talking about a time 2500 years before ours, recounted only by sources that are questionable at best. And yet, we have to believe in them because otherwise, we wouldn’t have anything to work with.

I’ll argue here that a similar phenomenon occurs in business: companies have to have a vision and believe in it, even if it’s wrong. Because otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to move ahead.

You have to believe in your vision, even though it’s wrong

Any company doing anything new is going into uncharted waters. There is no map, you can’t plan your course a long way ahead, and you are bound to learn many things along the way and adapt your strategy to them — in other words, to pivot.

So your vision when you set out is bound to be off, be it only because you cannot know where you could get. Where you end up may be close to what you intended, or it may be very, very different.

Microsoft planned to put a computer on every desk¹ and did pretty much that, though they failed to see many things that came on the way there — they were late to the Internet game, and even later to open source, for instance. Google wanted to organize the world’s information, which they did, but they also made a mobile operating system, took pictures of all of the world’s streets, and acquired a thermostat maker, which I doubt they were planning. These companies made adjustments but still ended up in the same realm they were envisioning.

Then there are examples like Glitch, which set out to make a video game and ended up becoming Slack, or Ludicorp, which went from being a game to being Flickr.

Regardless of how far from your vision you land, one thing is sure: it is wrong. If it weren’t, you’d be a seer, and you’d be busy winning every lottery instead of building startups.

The Duke of Wellington said: “All the business of war, indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I called ‘guessing what was on the other side of the hill.’”

Anyone innovating is in the business of crossing a hill and discovering hitherto unknown territory. You hope you will find success and fortune there, but you know this to be far from certain. Yet, climbing that hill is bound to be hard work. To be able to undertake it, you need to have some motivation, in the form of a picture of what you expect to find there — even though, again, you know it may not be there. In short, you have to project yourself several steps ahead if you want to have the energy to take even one step up that hill.

That is especially the case for any project involving teamwork: one person can be singlehandedly motivated by a foolhardy goal, but getting a team behind one is much more challenging. In the words of Sapiens, humans need a “common myth” to drive them forward.

Again, think of Microsoft, Google, Glitch, or any other company. Their employees had to tackle hundreds, thousands of challenging problems to get where they were headed. Would they have had the same energy if that work were for its own sake and not to build a future they believed in?

And even if the employees were independently motivated, how can you determine whether what they are working on makes sense if you don’t have a clear picture of where you want to get? This is especially a problem as a company grows: many different teams can be productive but not aligned, with the net effect that most of their effort is wasted.

Now you may be thinking: if the vision is wrong, won’t it be worse for the company to commit to it and go in a single direction? Wouldn’t it be better to have a broader approach and explore different paths?

I’ll argue that no, you shouldn’t try to “keep all options open” — as I’ve already done in the past. Keep in mind that there are, quite literally, an infinite number of things a person or company could do. So, regardless of where you will get, you have to be clear of what you are standing for since if you don’t, you will either flail wildly or stay stuck in analysis paralysis.

Even a company like Glitch, which seems to have pivoted as much as possible, stayed true to some of its tenets. They didn’t become a hedge fund or a copper mine: they stuck to software and released a piece of code they had needed during the development of their ill-fated game.

The role of management in a start-up is to track metrics and, if necessary, adjust the direction² — up to doing a drastic change. When you realize that you genuinely are off-course, you will need to pivot. That’s ok.

But in the meantime, to coordinate and motivate your staff, you need to have a vision, and you need to believe in it, even though it’s wrong because it’s the only driving force you can have.

When you reach success, if it ends up being very different from what you set out to do, don’t despair: you will still be able to write a different story for the press.

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