What your company needs most isn’t vision. It’s focus

Forget blue-sky thinking. To really change the world, embrace your boundaries and focus on innovating relentlessly within them

Spark inside a box

Think inside the box. (PM Images/Getty)

It’s the start of a new year, which means business leaders everywhere are engaged in the annual process of figuring out what, exactly, is to be done in the 12 months that lie ahead. Think big, says the conventional wisdom: It’s the time to ask fundamental questions about your vision, your purpose, your “why.” This has become management gospel. Business schools spend a lot of time on brainstorming these days. A small army of motivational speakers make their living teaching executives how to free-associate. Entrepreneurs now open pitches with their lofty visions for change, not their customers’ needs or their own sales records.

It creates the impression that the most valuable skill in a leader’s toolkit today is vision. But unless you’ve fallen into some sort of new-economy role in which your chief duty is to daydream, too much blue-sky thinking isn’t all that great—not for you as a leader, nor for your business as an entity that actually makes change.

A few years ago, Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels appeared on Alec Baldwin’s Here’s the Thing podcast. The actor asked the producer why he was so loyal to network TV, when, in an era of cable and streaming services, he could easily work on platforms that allowed more freedom. Michaels countered by saying the very restrictions of commercial television—fixed time slots, ad breaks, language rules—impose a very necessary discipline on a creative process that could otherwise spiral out of control. It doesn’t always lead to perfection, he conceded, but it does encourage people to both focus their energies and curb their unproductive instincts. “I say it every week: We don’t go on because we’re ready, we go on because it’s 11:30,” Michaels said. “To me, there’s no creativity without boundaries. If you’re gonna write a sonnet, it’s 14 lines. It’s solving a problem within a container…. I like that.”

It’s an idea that is as relevant to business business as it is to show business. “We actually need [constraints] to get creative,” wrote David Sturt, executive vice-president at Utah-headquartered employee recognition consultancy O.C. Tanner, in a 2013 Forbes column explaining his firm’s review of 1.7 million instances of externally validated “great” work at corporations. “We need the boundaries to inspire award-winning thinking—thinking that changes possibility.” O.C. Tanner’s research found that the people who created the most value in their organizations were those whose work required them to adhere to rules, policies and procedures, not those who were given carte blanche. They were inspired to excel by the challenge of working within limits.

If you’re too prone to unencumbered ideation, you run the risk of becoming the kind of boss who barges in each morning with a brilliant new half-baked idea to chase. Or the kind paralyzed by having to choose a course of action. Or, worst of all, the kind whose idealistic notions outrun the firm’s actual capabilities.

By contrast, if you embrace the constraints inherent to virtually any business—deadlines, budgets, skill sets—you can turn an overwhelming and abstract thought exercise into something achievable. Here’s a hypothetical: Company A’s CEO has set the admirable vision of disrupting the clean energy sector. Company B’s leader shares that impulse, but has also introduced the measurable goal of producing a solar panel that retails for less than $500 by the second quarter of 2018. Who do you think has the better odds of making more of a difference, two years from now?

Today’s smartest leaders understand that big ideas live or die on disciplined execution. Elon Musk is about as visionary as they come, and he has a “hands-on obsession” with granular, defined problem-solving. Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke has said it’s his job to be thinking years ahead, but he’s also fixated on the milestones of today: this month’s process improvement, tomorrow’s product launch. Lest you dismiss this as an engineering thing, Steve Jobs was like that, too.

Restrictions don’t kill innovation, they enable it. As you look forward to the coming year, you might want to try introducing a few.