by Avery Cloud


Jan 31, 2018
IT Leadership

Avoiding the pitfalls faced by visionary technology leaders.

man on mountain top winner leader alone
Credit: Thinkstock

Sound like a serious disease?

It is, and it can be terminal…to your career that is.

Visionary-itus identifies a condition where the gift of vision becomes detrimental instead of beneficial to the visionary and the organization.

What is a visionary?

The dictionary defines a visionary as a person with original ideas about what the future will or could be like. A great visionary technology leader combines her studied knowledge of business and technology trends to create original ideas that advance the strategic goals of the enterprise. To do this well, study is very important. A great technology vision must grow out of the context of business strategy.

Therefore, the visionary technology leader is called upon to study the aspects and trends of the industry in which the organization operates, as well as the rapidly changing capabilities in the field of technology. This dual domain knowledge is valuable grist to the visionary mill.

The path of the visionary may seem rosy, but often it is an arduous path full of pitfalls. It can be lonely and frustrating when the path and destination are crystal clear to you, but completely lost upon peers and bosses.

The visionary technology leader is forever on a quest to bring something into being that at present does not exist, is not understood, and for which there is little proof of value. It is hard enough to sell ideas that exist, but selling a vision, an original idea for which there is no existing complete model, is a tall order and if the pitfalls are not understood, the visionary leader might contract a terminal case of visionary-itus.

The symptoms of visionary-itus

There are several symptoms of this curable syndrome:

  • The technology leader moves too fast to implement the new idea. It may seem like a compliment to hear it said that a particular leader is a visionary, a person way ahead of her time; but a wise mentor of mine once said, “If you are one step ahead of your organization you are a visionary; but if you are two steps ahead you are a martyr.” Wise words, indeed. It doesn’t matter how right the technology leader’s vision might be, attempting to force adoption without garnering proper buy-in from the executive suite and affected constituencies can be painful and possibly career limiting. A cliché applies here: Things take the time that things take. It may seem heroic to move an idea forward at light speed, but human factors are such that every change is imprinted with its own necessary timetable for harmonious adoption. Cut that time short, and there will be consequences. When a new idea is a large leap from current understanding, it may be necessary to focus on the one-step ahead that naturally leads to the ultimate two-steps-ahead destination you envision.
  • The visionary technology leader is not visibly addressing current technology needs, customer satisfaction, service delivery, and performance. As much as executive suites appreciate visionary technology leadership, that appreciation quickly turns to vapor when current technology needs aren’t being met. Metaphorically, it is important to make sure the trains run on time in order to prevent enterprise leaders thinking your visionary pursuits are taking too much attention away from your daily operational performance.
  • The visionary leader blames others for not understanding the potency and importance of the vision she has outlined. In her frustration she either becomes discouraged, or angry. As hard as it might be to sell a vision, it is still the responsibility of the visionary to find the metaphors, analogies, similes, and allegories to make her audience understand. A visionary who cannot effectively communicate her vision, is little more than a beautiful musical instrument played without skill. Communicating effectively is a requisite skill for all forms of leadership, but especially visionary leadership.
  • The visionary leader spends inordinate effort trying to make sure the organization fully understands the technological aspects of the idea, but too little focus on translating the vision into business terms consumable by senior leaders and boards. It is easy to become so enamored with the elegance, power, and sophistication of a technological idea that we focus on selling the technology instead of the solution. Operating in this mode you might be seen as a technology hobbyist instead of a business thinker. Sometimes it is hard for technologists to accept the fact that senior leaders don’t really care how the technology works, but they care greatly what problems it solves and at what price.
  • The visionary technology leader has not thoroughly assessed the operational readiness of the organization to implement the new idea, and may not have thoroughly developed the business case, including any hidden costs, product life cycle costs, and overlap with existing technology. The visionary technology leader must also keep in mind that being a copycat is not being a visionary. It is a poor business case to propose implementing an idea just because a competitor has; that is unless the vision is to use it more effectively.

Preventive medicine

A thoroughly developed technology roadmap is a good way to inoculate yourself against visionaryitus. The roadmap should include the timed steps in the areas of people, process, and technology required to drive adoption. The roadmap should clearly show the future state but also the transitional states necessary to get there. The roadmap in conjunction with a solid business case will protect your status as a healthy visionary.