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Coming Soon to a Theater Near You — Nothing Much

This past weekend, the Wall Street Journal included a neatly illustrated article by Joe Queenan on the dearth of imagination in Hollywood in 2010.  The Worst Movie Year Ever? lamented recent storytelling efforts in Tinstletown, painting a picture of movie theaters around the country where audiences sit “listlessly through a series of lame, mechanical trailers for upcoming films that look exactly like the DOA movies audiences avoided last week.”

I’m familiar with the feeling that the popcorn is the only thing to be happy about in theaters this summer.  But as I was thinking about it, I started to wonder:  is Queenan simply describing the state of entertainment, or is he actually providing a metaphor for the state of business lately?

Think about it for a moment.  What was the last new idea you heard between the hours of 9 and 5?  When was the last time you felt you were tackling a worthy and pressing problem that couldn’t be “solved” with a glib spreadsheet or a recycled plotline?  When was the last time someone in something resembling a business suit challenged you with well-articulated direction vs assigning you “lame, mechanical tasks” that, if you think about it, are exactly like the DOA tasks you had to do last week?

One of the casualties of the recession that no one talks about too much is the demise of imagination and articulated vision.  It’s almost as though we’ve thrown up our hands and collectively agreed that Steve Jobs has enough new ideas for all of us, no need to think up any others.

In fact, the savvy bureaucrat avoids risk in this environment.  He is the one who doesn’t get fired because he keeps doing things the way they’ve always been done.  No matter the need for new ideas, he can be counted on to kill the challenge at hand with tasks.

As @zappos recently tweeted:

                                    Zappos

Lately we’ve been living the nightmare.  All over corporate cubicles, in government offices, across blogging platforms, and throughout tweet streams, execution is outrunning vision.  Execution is outrunning thinking.  Execution is just out running.  To nowhere.  But it’s running and we are punching the clock.

Think about it as a national reality show called The Office.  And what a waste – of time, of energy, of opportunity.

Recently I was in a conversation about strategic imperatives where I argued that a document we were reviewing was simply a series of tactics, a to-do list, as opposed to a strategy document that could actually be useful in guiding development over the next three years of enormous challenges ahead.  There was a moment of silence at the other end of the line before my friend admitted:  “Yes, it’s a to-do list.  But there’s a real part of us that just wants a to-do list right now.”

So why the vision exhaustion at a time when so many companies need a clear path to the future?

I think it’s due to several factors – but two rank as particularly important.

First is digital.  Most businesses are feeling incredible digital upheaval.  Those leaders and industries which had been avoiding it, can no longer.  And digital technologies complicate things by compressing strategy and tactics.  So the legacy industries handle these things they don’t really understand compartmentally, by executing meaningless stunts and tasks as opposed to creating thoughtful initiatives.  One consultant I know described his industry conversations about digital:  “We all meet monthly and agree to chew the same cud. The conversation doesn’t advance and then everyone takes turns copying one another.  The next month we do it all over again.”

And where are the experts?  Many of the digerati who know better hide behind snark these days, sniping for sport and vanity but can’t or won’t advance the larger conversation.  Perhaps they are more techie than verbal or maybe they’re just comfortable reveling in their superior knowledge.  In either case they shirk the responsibility and opportunity of leadership and vision.

Second is simply exhaustion.  The recession is taking it out of everyone.  Many in understaffed offices are bowed and bloody.  And they are very aware that survival in the corporate suite has lately favored the non-visionary – the silly task masters and the gods of granular.  Why stick your neck out at a time like this?  Better to go through the motions, even if you know those motions are not moving anyone forward.

Ultimately, Queenan comes back in his article to acknowledge that the dearth of imagination in Hollywood is “not just a case of cowardice; the industry is legitimately confused.”

In fact, most industries are.

But the challenge of leadership in this market is the challenge of articulated vision.  Are you up to it?



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