You Can Only See as Far as Your Headlights Shine – Practical Advice for Learning Through Action
It's that time of the year where leaders and executive teams hear the following phrases a lot (especially in large organizations!): “let’s align on the objective, let’s set clear goals, let’s conduct a strategy session to clarify direction, etc…”
While we are strong advocates of aligning on direction (and often facilitate these discussions), we are increasingly convinced that many leadership-teams overdo it and the “marginal return” on yet another “vision-exercise” is minimal, if not negative. Why?…and what should you do instead?
Let me introduce “the headlight principle.” It’s based on the metaphor of a car at night, which is only able to see into the distance by moving forward, and letting its headlights progressively illuminate the next stretch of road (conversely you’ll never see what lies ahead if you stay in the parking lot).
Restating the principle – “you will learn more about the right direction for the future by taking action, then talking & deliberating more about it” (…or…another offsite, more PowerPoint slides, or another sketch on the wipeboard – you get the point…).
While I believe the imagery makes the point, let’s drive it home by decomposing the key variables that make this principle true:
Your car = your performance: – are we getting tired? can our car really make it up the mountain pass? As you move into the future and expose yourself to different opportunities and challenges you’ll learn an immense amount about yourself and your true capabilities (…skill, energy, resources, team…)
The road = the environment & process to make it happen: – lots of potholes? damaging our car? no gas stations? a shortcut? weather? While you might be enamored with the final destination, the journey to get there will teach you valuable lessons about how feasible it really is and if you’re up for the challenge (ex investment needed, traffic jam/competition, economy, speed limits/regulations & standards…)
The destination= vision: – what about that beautiful waterfall we just discovered? what about the tip we got from the lady at the last rest-stop? The original destination was what we initially had in mind, but we’re constantly learning more about other alternative destinations as we get closer to them and get new information. There’s no virtue in blindly committing to the “original goal” if our learnings suggest we should redirect.
To make it simple, the key factors that drive the “headlight principle” are taking continued action, and dynamically learning to inform the next step. So if you’re parked in the parking lot, worried about whether the destination is the right one or not, turn on your headlights and start moving. You’ll find out.