Bill Taylor’s HBR Blog post today — “Don’t Let What You Know Limit What You Imagine” — strikes at the heart of a strategic planning challenge for professional service organizations in today’s marketplace.  Begin with bright business minds, add expertise and deep experience, blend with volatility, unpredictability and a touch of fear, and you have a recipe that can result in the devils we know defining the way we think, act and communicate.

You know the saying — Be careful…the devil you know may end up being better than the one you don’t know.

When much is at stake — not to mention those moments when crisis looms — the desire to study history, examine the past, and leverage experience is understandable.  The great challenge — in fact, one of the things that differentiates those who actually inspire, innovate and change the future from would-be leaders — is balanced perspective.

Case in point — as the father of a soon to be 20-year old daughter, it’s difficult for me not to speak completely out of personal experience when I offer advice on dating.  ”I know exactly how immature boys your age are because I was one!”  Few would dispute that my perspective is rooted in fact.  But the problem (apart from the fact that my target audience has limited interest in this message) is that this one-dimensional perspective does little to facilitate progress.

What does this have to do with organizational thinking, planning and communication?  Simply this: without exception, when couched and “toned” only by data points of the past, an organization’s mindset, planning and message will lack dimension, limit vision, and seed faulty action.

Absent a perspective that allows for (and prompts) vision, communication is either a recitation of history or an account of current conditions. If that data is less than stellar the chances are great that the devils we know have far too much influence.

Consider this: had the framework for Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or poetic Second Inaugural been couched in the reality of recent history, or even the moment, his speeches would simply have decried the nation’s condition, and mourned those yet to die. Instead, Lincoln used the past to give birth to a new vision.

Had Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the throng gathered on the Mall in Washington, D.C. speaking only out of experience, the “I have a dream” refrain would never have passed his lips.

And in the wake of the USSR having won the race to orbit the earth, President Kennedy dared to stir the US with an unthinkable vision — to put a man on the moon.

Take a look at what these examples have in common.

  • They do not gloss over or ignore the realities of the past;
  • They broaden perspective;
  • They speak of possibilities for the future;
  • They call for participation.

Put another way — what Lincoln, King and Kennedy did was transcend data, and seed a vision. Some might suggest that known data points and vision represent opposite perspectives — that the former is grounded in fact and the later is right-side-of-the-brain creativity at its best . . . spin at worst. Yet, pivotal moments are often marked by the communication of a leader who, unprepared for the past to define the future, is able to articulate a new view of the horizon.

Pivotal moments — whether in commerce, social enterprise, political endeavors and even personal adventure – come when decision makers understand that most of us are anxious to be done with the devils we have known.  We simply need someone to help us with the vision of what might be.

Most of us are still stirred by a dream — by the challenge inherent in what Jim Collins called Big Hairy Audacious Goals.