Envisioning The Future

Thomas C Schleifer, Ph.D.

What do you mean by envisioning the future?” was the first question I received just minutes after posting last week’s message. Whenever a poetic phrase like that occurs to me, I often hesitate to use it because I suspect that few of my readers are poets. However, I use “envisioning the future” and other phrases today in an effort to encourage construction professionals who are trying to sell construction services in this schizophrenic economic environment to keep the vision of their company’s success uppermost in their mind.

If Anything Can Go Wrong – It Will

No other industry contracts for job after jobs that are similar but are not the same, to sustain their ongoing business. Every time we start a new project it’s like starting a new company. The risk variables, financing, staff, location, customer, and building design change with every new job and, if anything can go wrong, it will. Large industrial manufacturing companies love to talk about five-year plans and long-range strategic planning because they have the luxury of navigating like a ship’s captain with their eye on the distant horizon. On the other hand, planning in construction is like crossing a rushing stream by jumping from stone to atone. If we focus on the opposite bank and miss the next stone, we will almost certainly fall in. 

A Problem-Solving Organ

The most effective long-range planning in construction that I have observed is the vision of the founder. This may seem a little vague, but envisioning future success is grounded in the science of the brain. Our human brain is a problem-solving organ that recognizes external stimulus and classifies it as either supporting or threatening to our survival. After testing external observations as “good” or “bad” our brain is able to help us navigate our business by avoiding danger (bad) and embracing what it deems will insure its survival (good). Over time, this problem-solving organ gradually conceptualizes an image of our future survival. In other words, it “envisions” success and helps us manage accordingly.

Vision – The Secret Sauce

Every successful contractor I have known over the past forty years is brilliant at envisioning their company’s future success and the path to achieving it. I believe this is the “secret sauce” of successful contracting. It is also one of the reasons it is so difficult (close to impossible) to replace the founders of successful construction enterprises. This helps to explain why so many companies fail when transitioning from the startup stage to the survival stage or to the success or growth stages. In this industry, the sacred “five-year plan” of business schools is ineffective without “vision” because we construction professionals are busy jumping from stone to stone. 


If, in fact, the founder’s vision is the “secret sauce”, what happens when the founder retires or leaves the company? Unless they are replaced with a successor who shares their vision, the company suffers. Industry statistics indicate that a significant percentage of construction companies fail not long after the loss of a founder. The failure rate of second-generation firms is substantial and more so with third generation. It is the rare construction company founder who can find a successor who genuinely shares his or her vision; so many are reluctant to hand their company over to anyone. Lack of vision is one of the primary reasons so many construction companies fail to make it past the third generation.

It’s “The Vision Thing”

An interesting way to illustrate the concept of vision may be to point out something that appeared in a 1987 article in Time Magazine written by Robert Ajemian that has nothing to do with construction. He recounts this anecdote about the struggles of President H.W. Bush when he was preparing to run for a second term. 

Colleagues say that while Bush understands thoroughly the complexities of issues, he does not easily fit them into larger themes,” Ajemian wrote. “This has led to the charge that he lacks vision. It rankles him. Recently he asked a friend to help him identify some cutting issues for next year’s campaign. Instead, the friend suggested that Bush go alone to Camp David for a few days to figure out where he wanted to take the country. ‘Oh,’ said Bush in clear exasperation, ‘the vision thing.’ The friend’s advice did not impress him.”

Bush’s comment about “the vision thing” was quickly picked up by the press and used against him by his critics.

The Reality

We contractors should trust our inner vision for our company’s success. Our employees can help us jump from stone to stone, but they can’t replace our vision of the distant shore. Only the founder has that “secret sauce”, and it is difficult for them to figure out a way to pass their vison along. If it is not passed forward, the selected successor will be missing a serious ingredient for success.

Nest week we will move on to some important accounting issues.

For a deeper look into leadership, read more here: LEADERSHIP

For a broader view into succession planning, read more here: SUCCESSION 

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