01 January 2013

Making Vision a Reality

"Perhaps God made the world round so we couldn't see too far."  
--Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa
While navigating Washington, D.C. recently I was reminded that the layout of the “District” is the result of someone’s vision.   
In fact, it all began in 1790 when, upon the recommendation of then President George Washington, Congress authorized the creation of a 100-square-mile federal district along the Potomac River that is under the jurisdiction of the United States Congress.    
Washington identified the location and at some point, his name was placed on what was called the "District of Columbia."  However, the concept came from the mind of French architect Pierre Charles L'Enfant. 
L'Enfant is responsible for a framework that, in remarkable ways, remains close to the original plan sketched out over 200 years ago.  

Beauty in simplicity   
According to Smithsonian Magazine, his concept was based on European models translated to American ideals. "The entire city was built around the idea that every citizen was equally important," says L'Enfant's biographer, Scott Berg. "The Mall was designed as open to all comers, which would have been unheard of in France. It's a very sort of egalitarian idea."

The original design of a "grand capital of wide avenues, public squares, and inspiring buildings in what was then a district of hills, forests, marshes, and plantations" is what we behold more than two centuries later.  
The biggest obstacles in the early days were funding for the project and the District's wealthy landowners who didn't share L'Enfant's vision. 

Nevertheless, the contours of the original survey have outlasted nearly eight generations of Washingtonians--something to think about in a city of mostly disposable ideas.
Mining visionary lessons

George Washington and Pierre L'Enfant offer instruction on the important, but sometimes misunderstood, subject of "vision."   
Before "casting a vision" toward a desirable destination here are some insights to consider:

Early stages 
  • People first.  Washington selected the land but needed help.  So he enlisted L’Enfant.  The right person improves the chances of getting the right plan. L'Enfant was a seasoned architect when Washington selected him for this monumental task.
  • The ideal starting point.   L'Enfant was able to start from scratch which is always the first choice.  It's harder to inject visionary thinking into a body at rest--although that's when it’s needed most. 
  • Try collaborating.   The development of a "realistic, credible, and attractive" vision is less a solo performance and more likely the result of interaction and experience with others. 
  • Enduring qualities.  It’s important to introduce concepts that are deep, not just wide.  ("Every citizen equally important").  Sloganeering and platitudes don't have a long shelf life and they're promotional in nature.  Well-thought-out visions hold their original value even when updated by succeeding generations and circumstances.
  • Need a centerpiece.  For L'Enfant, it was the "public walk" or what is now known as the National Mall.  The two-mile-long strip of grass has become the world's stage for demonstrations and public debate as a showcase of democracy.
  • The role of character. The values of the visionary become the values of the design.  What comes out is what's already inside.  This helps explain why some visions are elevating and others are grandiose.     
Other stages
  • A proper horizon.  Vision becomes reality over time, not overnight.  A century later the work was far from complete.  In 1901 the McMillan Commission updated the original plan based on L’Enfant’s drawings and moved things into the next phase of development.
  • Getting credit, getting paid, or both.  It's possible to have a vision or idea and not get credit for it--or get paid.  L'Enfant quit in frustration and was never compensated for his Washington, D. C. assignment unless you count having a Metro station associated with your name (L'Enfant Plaza).
  • Proceed with caution.  Visions need some vetting.  Unchecked dreams often become nightmares.   A huge waterfall cascading down Capitol Hill never went anywhere.  Washington and L'Enfant were tested in many ways yet the essentials of the design are still in place.  
Final thoughts

The good thing about principles is they are scalable.  A department or business unit is not Washington, D. C. but those you lead and manage still need a sense of purpose and direction.   Associates should understand the "goal" and be able to measure progress toward its achievement.    

A shared vision is an absolute necessity for getting something done through others.  Both face-to-face communication and social media can be enlisted for support.   

And the biggest myth about vision?  That vision makes it possible to do anything. (Burt Nanus)  

(C) Bredholt &  Co.