or “I have a dream” beats “I have a plan”
by Jeffrey Phillips
Over coffee this morning we were talking about the need for a “vision”. One of my compatriots quipped “suppose Martin Luther King had said ‘I have a plan’ rather than ‘I have a dream'”. What struck me is how differently these two statements establish a framework for innovation.
After all, as we’ve discussed here and many other places, big change needs a big vision or dream. When JFK talked about going to the moon, he did so at a time when humans could barely get into orbit, much less reach the moon and return. Now, to my knowledge, JFK didn’t say he had a “vision” about space travel or that it was his “dream” to go to the moon. Further, in re-reading the speech he talked about the risks, both of trying and failing and not trying at all. He and the nation were spurred to this by the accomplishments of the Soviet Union. So in some regards he was playing catch-up, and pushing the goal posts a lot further out.
When Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech the country was mired in civil strife and many Americans were relegated to second class citizenship. MLK was thinking about the sweeping change that would occur when people were judged by the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin. His, too, was a monumental vision or dream, brought about by conflicting realities. He was spurred on by the belief that the US promised equality and justice to everyone.
Imagine, therefore, if either JFK or MLK had started their speeches with “I have a plan”. The problem with “I have a plan” is that the outcome is already constrained, the approach already dictated, the timeline already established. A plan is usually well-defined, and there’s little room for change. You can accept the plan or reject the plan – it’s a binary decision. Plans demonstrate that a lot of thinking has already been accomplished, and often you don’t understand the perspectives or imperatives of those who constructed the plan. A dream, on the other hand, tends to be inclusive, unconstrained, expansive. Dreams can be accomplished in a number of ways, and many people are invited to participate. A plan suggests that a solution is already in sight, and we simply need to apply people and resources to achieve the outcome. A dream suggests that we’re still discovering the opportunity and making that vision available to anyone who wants to come on board.
While it’s not businesslike to talk about “dreams” at work, we can reasonably substitute vision. I’ll argue that every good innovation effort beyond the merely incremental should start with by defining the “dream” or “vision”, and proceed from there. Clearly, at some point a “plan” will be developed to outline the resources and efforts necessary to accomplish the vision, but no one signs up to a “plan”. People are engaged in dangerous or difficult work due to an overriding dream or vision. That vision usually has the ability to communicate not just the end state, but the benefits the individual will receive because of the end state. King talked not only about measuring people by the content of their character – which was the end state, but in the same speech talked about the outcomes:
“With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
Imagine if King had said “I have a plan”. Would his words have had the same resonance? Would his goals have been as lofty? Would that have inspired people to make the major sacrifices necessary to reach his desired goals? I doubt it. While we innovators don’t fight for such lofty outcomes, we can learn from his oratory and the examples of others. We need to learn to frame our goals as dreams and visions, rather than mundane plans and products.
As Daniel Burnham, one of the most celebrated architects in the late 19th and early 20th century said:
“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.”
Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.