Seeing The Future

I love Formula 1 racing. The combination of technology, skill, and speed are fascinating to me. While watching pre-race coverage, footage of a driver pretending to shift and steer while sitting against a wall before the race caught my attention. The driver wasn’t pretending; he was visualizing. He was driving the lap in his mind and acting out the physical movements of his hands and feet as he saw himself executing the perfect lap.

Visualization is a technique for creating a mental image of a future event. Not to be confused with the “think it and you will be it” advice of self-help gurus, visualization is a well-developed method used by people in a wide range of endeavors to improve their performance and goal attainment. The impact on our individual performance can be significant.

In 1996, Dr. Blaslotto at the University of Chicago conducted a study on visualization. He asked a group of randomly selected students to take a series of free-throws and recorded their success rate. He then had one third of the students practice making free throws for a half hour per day. He had another third go to the gym but just imagine making free throws with their eyes closed. The last third, he instructed to do nothing. 

After 30 days, he retested their ability to make free throws. The group that did nothing did not improve, which was to be expected. The group that practiced every day improved 24%. Amazingly, the group that visualized making free throws but did not touch a basketball or make any actual shots in practice improved 23%! Almost the same improvement as the group that physically practiced.

Visualization works because of the way our brain functions. The neurons in our brain interpret imagery as equivalent to real-life actions. When we visualize doing or achieving something, our brain sends impulses that tell our neurons to perform that action. This creates neural pathways that prime us to act in ways that are consistent with what we imagined or saw ourselves doing. The result is similar to having done that activity or action without actually performing it.

As significant as visualization is for individual performance, it is equally effective for organizations. I’m not saying you should take your team into a room and have them close their eyes and imagine something, but I am suggesting that if everyone in an organization can visualize a particular outcome, the likelihood of achieving it increases significantly.

It is important to remember that visualization works because it prepares you to do something by creating neural pathways for doing it. We don’t want to visualize not doing something. In other words, we want to visualize succeeding, not avoiding failure. The effectiveness lies in getting ourselves (or our team) familiar with what it feels like to succeed.

This is why having and clearly communicating an image rich vision for the organization is one of the ways leaders demonstrate that they value their team members. When we give each team member a clear image of the desired future for the organization, it enables them to fully participate in achieving that vision. Helping an individual or a group succeed demonstrates that we care for and value them.

In my experience with multiple organizations of different sizes and types, the most effective vision is a narrative description of what it looks and feels like to be part of that community at some point in the future (5-15 years from now). Since the vision will be a more complex and lengthy document, there needs to be a compelling mission that explains why the community exists and a concise set of core values that define the unmovable principles of the group.

Ironically, just like we can use visualization through a vision statement to align and propel an organization to success, we can do the same thing individually. Do you have a personal vision statement? Can you see clearly in your mind’s eye the version of yourself and the people you surround yourself with at some point in the future? If you can, you have already greatly increased your potential for reaching those goals.

None of us has a crystal ball. We cannot see the future because we cannot predict or anticipate all the other things around us that we have no control over. On the race track during a race, each driver impacts the others by everything they do, and none of them can anticipate all those actions. However, they can ensure they are fully aware of and prepared to handle their car and the track itself almost without thinking because they are so familiar with it. This leaves them free to respond to the variables and get back on their race line as quickly and efficiently as possible.

In our personal and organizational lives, we too are surrounded by things that impact us in ways we will never be able to fully anticipate. However, if we have prepared ourselves and our organizations for success by clearly seeing the future we want to create, we are better equipped to manage around the inevitable disruptions. Clearly visualizing a future that is better for everyone in our community makes a real difference, and it is the Bison Way.