“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” – Proverbs 29:18
In the telephone game, people form a line, and the first player whispers a message or word to the next player, who then whispers what they heard (or think they heard) to the third player, and so on, until the end of the line is reached. When the last player says aloud whatever they think they heard, the word or message is generally quite different from the starting word. This reminded me of an incessant problem that founders experience as their companies scale. How do you maintain the message of your company vision across generations?
Nearly a century ago, the celebrated British psychologist Sir Frederic Charles Bartlett, the first professor of experimental psychology at the University of Cambridge, pioneered the use of the game of telephone to study cultural evolution. Bartlett studied how different indigenous folk tales changed substantially as they were relayed across the ‘generations’ of participants, becoming much shorter and to the point and changing dramatically. He also observed similar effects with the passing on of visual depictions when people were asked to draw pictures from memory. In one such case, the unfamiliar Egyptian hieroglyph ‘mulak’, which resembles an owl, gradually morphed into a household cat as the generations passed. (see the illustrations below taken from The Language Game).
(Drawings from Bartlett’s (1932) visual game-of-telephone study, showing reproductions 1 to 10, ordered left to right and top to bottom. The original drawing of an owl-like Egyptian hieroglyph gradually mutates into a cat.)
Every successful entrepreneur starts with a vision, an inkling in their head, a nagging insight; a burning idea they simply must pursue. From Steve Jobs to Estée Lauder, their vision drove their success. However, as the business scales, as the management changes and the founder is further removed from the business, that burning vision is often reduced to simmering embers. And it isn’t easy to keep the vision alight.
Jobs and Wozniak brought Apple from a garage to Wall Street. As long as Steve Jobs passionately reinforced his vision, Apple thrived. The history books and the stock prices show how Apple subsequently lost its way as the company grew too large to be run by a solitary visionary. Jobs rebounded back to reinforce the vision. In 2001, commentators speculated that the personal computer age was over. In a prophetic statement, Jobs announced that the PC was not dead; it had just evolved. His declaration heralded years of unprecedented growth that paved the way for Apple’s success. That success owes a lot to the vision of a digital hub, a vision that united the organisation towards a common goal. Jobs opened that seminal keynote with a question, “What is our vision? A lot of people have come to ask that of our whole industry.” Then with his competitors watching, he clearly outlined the vision that utterly transformed the industry. It remains to be seen how Apple will cope in the post-Jobs era. Tim Cook has taken the baton well and has led the company to be a multi-trillion dollar enterprise. Family businesses, even when well-managed and even when they retain family members, experience similar challenges.
“The father buys, the son builds, the grandchild sells, and his son begs.” – Scottish Proverb
Many proverbial sayings suggest that wealth achieved in one generation will be lost by the third. The first generation builds the family fortune through sacrifice and hard work. The second generation witnesses this; they see the hardship their parents endure and the time they invest. The second generation enjoys the fruits of the labour of the first – and so they should. They often live in luxurious homes and do not experience the same hardships as the first generation. The third generation is so far removed from the initial struggles that the memory of the hard times and the evolution of the family’s wealth is forgotten. It is not the children’s fault; their world is informed by the world their parents introduce them to. They have no understanding of the work that went into building the lifestyle they now enjoy (that is the problem of privilege).
For family businesses, our previous guest and author of “Dirty Little Secrets of Family Business.” Henry Hutcheson tells us that storytelling is key. The family must keep the stories of early struggle alive, recounting tales of resilience and how the family overcame hardships.
What are larger organisations but bigger families? Storytelling is also crucial, but the story often stops on the first floor, in the executive suite. The story dissipates and dilutes as it is passed down the echelons of the business, just like an organisational telephone game. The leadership team are often very clear on the vision but forgets that the entire organisation needs to hear that vision regularly. When you think you are storytelling too often, you probably still underdo it. (There are other ways to keep the vision alive in your hiring practices and more, with some companies investing in an organisational historian, but they are beyond the scope of a short Thursday Thought.)
In my book, Undisruptable, I dedicate two chapters to vision. It is such an essential aspect of a happy life. Proverbs 29:18 reads, “Where there is no vision, the people perish”. The Hebrew word for perish is paw-rah. Paw-rah is the binding that prevents a woman’s hair from blowing directionless in the wind. Without a vision, we all are liable to float through life like a paper boat on a wild ocean.
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If your company is interested in Vision Workshops, this is one of the workshops we love to run in Edge Behaviour. Feel free to drop us a line for more information.