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You’re busy, but where are you going?

Action doesn’t equal accomplishment – move with actual goals in mind toward a common vision

“If you remind Tom the week before, he can throw some training together.”

That’s it? That’s the training plan?

I was about to take over as the new leader of this team and wanted to learn as much as I could from the outgoing one. Most important, I wanted to understand their vision of where the team was going. Experience has taught me that few things are more frustrating than someone new coming in and completely changing things.

One way to learn about a team is to look at its training plan; how members prepare today gives insight into where they plan on going tomorrow. From my conversation, though, it was becoming clear that not only was there no training plan, but no one knew what the future had in store for this team. There was no doubt this team was busy, but where were they going?

Action doesn’t equal accomplishment

Great achievements don’t just happen; they are the result of many little but intentional steps. These small daily actions compound over time toward the accomplishment of something big. This is very different than just being busy. Many teams are busy, but they don’t have great accomplishments to show for it. The problem isn’t that they’re not working hard; the problem is that their hard work isn’t aligned toward a common worthwhile purpose. They don’t have a clear vision of where they’re going.

Imagine going on a road trip. You’ve packed all the right things, traveled your eight hours each day and had contingency plans for any emergencies. On this fictional trip, the traveling went smoothly, but there was one big problem: You never had a clear vision of where you were going (the destination). As a result, despite getting the small details right, all your hard work took you somewhere you never wanted to visit in the first place. This example may be ridiculous, but it unfortunately is how many teams operate. They get all the daily steps right, but never question where those actions will lead them.

By having a clear vision of where our team is going, we can ensure all the small daily steps are in alignment. A shared vision takes the actions of individuals and focuses their work toward the common purpose of the team. In his book “The Culture Code: The Secret of Highly Successful Groups,” Daniel Coyle documents his study of high-performing teams from around the world and argues that strong teams share three common features. It should be no surprise that of those three essential qualities, a shared vision (he calls it “purpose”) is one.

Playing the infinite game

Vision statements are different than goals and mission statements. Goals are finite. They represent the concrete steps that take us closer to our vision, but they don’t represent where we ultimately want to go as a team. A mission statement describes how we will reach our vision but doesn’t explain the ultimate purpose behind what we’re doing. In contrast, a vision statement clearly describes a future that does not yet exist but ignites our passion to bring it to reality. Great teams share a common vision.

A defining feature of an effective vision is its horizon, or how far into the future it focuses our attention. Picture someone learning to ride a bike. Because the new rider doesn’t yet feel comfortable with their skill, they focus on the pavement immediately in front of them. All their attention is committed to traveling the next few feet safely. Once they accomplish that, a new goal is set a few feet farther down the road, and all their attention is refocused there. This process feels good – they’re riding a bike! But anyone watching from a distance, with a greater vision of the road ahead, can see the rider is constantly adjusting their path. With only a limited view of what lies ahead, the new rider is constantly overcorrecting, turning their handlebars wildly from side to side to stay on the sidewalk. In contrast, a seasoned rider looks much farther out. By doing so they can anticipate the obstacles ahead and choose the best path to get where they want to go.

Teams that only look as far ahead as their next goal are like the new rider. Their ultimate progress will be stunted due to their limited view of the future and the need to constantly correct course to achieve new goals (that may not even align with a long-term vision). Teams with a strong vision of the future are like the seasoned rider who makes minor course corrections as obstacles arise but maintains a clear view of where they are headed.

How far out should a vision focus us? In his book “The Infinite Game,” Simon Sinek argues that we play in an “infinite game.” Unlike a traditional game or competition, policing is a profession without an end. Though we will make progress throughout our careers, no one will be able to claim the job is done when they retire. The need for guardians will continue long after each of us. As a result, our vision cannot focus on a horizon we expect to reach anytime soon. Instead, it must focus our actions and decisions about a future we will likely never reach during our careers but are inspired to strive toward anyway.

By focusing on how our actions impact the distant future, we can make better decisions today. When we face competing demands for our time and energy, those demands can be weighed against how effectively they move our team closer to its vision. In doing so we act as the CEO, or the “chief editing officer,” and recognize there are sometimes demands that don’t deserve our team’s energy. When needs arise that are urgent but not necessarily important, a clear vision of the future gives us the confidence to refocus our team on those activities that have long-term impacts.

This doesn’t mean our path won’t have obstacles. Unanticipated crises will happen. Setbacks will occur. But when we recognize we work in an infinite game, we expect those things. Problems no longer distract us; we simply put them in perspective of the long-term vision and adapt.

Put first things first

A problem with this way of thinking is that although it’s important, it isn’t urgent. We aren’t immediately rewarded for taking the time to identify a long-term vision, but we do feel the immediate pressure of deadlines that need our attention now. In his business classic “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” author Stephen Covey would call these “quadrant 1” activities. These things are both urgent and important and demand our attention now.

When we spend much of our time managing quadrant 1 problems and don’t have a vision of the future, we often find ourselves also involved in “quadrant 3” activities. These things are urgent but not important (not in the long term, at least). As a result, our schedules become overbooked, and we never find the time to focus on what Covey calls “quadrant 2” activities: the things that aren’t urgent but are important. This is where the future lies. It’s taking the time to get our teams onto the right paths. It’s doing the right things, not just staying busy.

How do we make time for these things? The answer is simple but not easy. We make the time by recognizing them as a priority. As the saying goes, we always have time for priorities. Think of the last crisis that came across your desk when you had “no time.” You somehow made time for it and got it resolved. If we want our teams to accomplish great things, we need to make it a priority to clarify and share a vision. The good news is that when we do this, we slowly clear away the things that don’t have long-term value and create more time for the things that do.

What’s next? Do you understand what it means for your team to play in an infinite game? Do all the members of your team understand their role in the vision? In the absence of an existing vision statement, clarifying and sharing one is our responsibility as leaders. Otherwise, we may find we’re busy but aren’t actually going anywhere.

NEXT: ‘You can’t outwork bad leadership’

Jim Imoehl is a training sergeant and Crisis Negotiation Team sergeant for the City of Madison (Wisconsin) Police Department. Prior to his current assignments, he served as a patrol sergeant, SWAT operator, Special Events Team grenadier sergeant, field training officer and member of the Honor Guard. His experiences outside of policing include 14 years in the US Navy Reserve where he served as a Senior Chief Petty Officer and 12 years with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation teaching about motorcycle safety and adult learning principles as a RiderCoach Trainer.