Alice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
Cheshire Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
Alice: “I don't much care where.”
The Cheshire Cat: “Then it doesn't much matter which way you go.”
Imagine landing at your vacation destination and being greeted by 5,000 delighted fans cheering your name. Like the Beatles arriving in the US in 1964, this is the talk of the town.
The mayor greets you on the plane. “At last, you’ve arrived!” she says. “We’ve been expecting you. How was your flight?”
“Oh, fine,” you respond, as her assistant hands you a cold towel and a piña colada.
“Great! Right this way please.”
She ushers you off the concrete and towards a private car the city has hired for you.
“This’ll take you straight through the ticker-tape parade, and then on to your destination.”
Through the ticker-tape parade you go, reading cards held up with welcome messages. You arrive at your hotel, where the press are eagerly awaiting to hear what you think of their city. You say a few nice words, and the press seem delighted. The next morning you read news stories about how exciting it is that you’re here, for real, in THEIR CITY!
That’s a 10-star experience, according to AirBnB founder Brian Chesky. It’s a thought experiment: what is the absolute best level of experience someone could ever have when they arrive in a new city?
Obviously AirBnB aren’t about to start throwing parades and hiring adoring fans for every guest. The point is to visualise the ideal scenario, the pinnacle of what is humanly possible, and then work backwards from there.
This is beginning with the end in mind.
You need to begin with the end in mind because, like Alice in Wonderland, you need a destination in order to know which direction to go.
Stephen Covey lists beginning with the end in mind as one of the seven habits of highly effective people in his aptly titled bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a book that sits atop the bookshelves of every ambitious executive in corporate America.
Covey takes a more sombre approach to this exercise than Chesky’s light-hearted 10-star experience. Rather than asking the reader to imagine a utopian vacation arrival, Covey instead suggests imagining a number of people speaking at your funeral. 1
What do you want your eulogisers to say? How would you like your friends, family, colleagues, or community to remember you? What virtues did you embody? What difference do you want to have made to people’s lives? What accomplishments do you leave behind? What is your legacy? When the reaper finally comes knocking, what is the life you want to have lived?
Once you’ve answered those questions, reflect, and think: to have those things said about me when I’m gone, what sort of life do I need to live? And how does that compare to the life I’m living right now?
It’s a powerful, sobering exercise, and one I recommend you do every year or so.
Similar exercises exist for a company too. Often called vision setting — I’m a sucker for alliteration so I like Cam Herold’s concept of a Vivid Vision — the point of this exercise is to create a detailed description of what you want your company, or your team, or your department, to be like in 10 years, or 5 years, or 3 years. You then share that vision with your colleagues or your leadership team to make sure they’re bought in and understand the vision.
The result should be that everyone in the team understands the destination. They all start metaphorically rowing in the same direction. It also allows your team to make more effective decisions without you — in military contexts we’d call this understanding the commander’s intent.
Without a destination, you’ll simply end up drifting across the ocean like a rudderless ship. With a destination, you have purpose, clarity, and a clear direction of travel.
As well as that clear direction, you also gain three other key benefits.
Having a goal to work towards — a vision of what the world could be — is exciting. It’s engaging. It gets people fired up.
At Scribe Media our mission was to ‘unlock the world’s knowledge.’ Our vision was of a world where everyone has the tools they need to write and publish their own book, getting their specific knowledge out of their head and into the hands of anyone that wants to benefit from it.
That’s an incredibly compelling, motivating vision. It’s also WAY better than ‘we think we can make money doing this’ or ‘the current way of writing a book sucks so we want to improve it.’ Frankly, few people are solely motivated by those things. And if they are, they’re the wrong people to have on your team.
By contrast, a shared vision helps you attract, motivate and retain people who share and believe in that vision.
If you’re thinking about how to improve your life, it’s easy to get stuck in your current frame. For example, maybe you’re a software engineer thinking about a career change. I like working with more junior colleagues and mentoring them, you think, so maybe I should take on a leadership role where I can do that. I like working outside, so maybe I should work from home more so that I can set up a desk in my back garden.
Maybe. But maybe you should quit your job and be a teacher. Or a park ranger. Or maybe you should keep doing your current job and become a scout leader in your spare time.
There’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer. But it’s easier to solve these problems backwards than forwards. From The Path of Least Resistance by Robert Fritz:
The process should always serve the result. And because a new result might require a completely original process, limiting yourself to preconceived notions of what processes are available can be fatal to spontaneity.
To maximise spontaneity, creativity, and enable your best thinking, start with the result you want. Then work backwards from there.
Starting where you are, and attempting to find improvements from there, naturally leads to incrementalism. In your career, you might think that you want a similar job, but one that pays $10k more and has a few more PTO days. In your business, you might examine a process and decide that it’s basically fine as it is, and that it just needs a little refinement or automation here and there.
Instead, by starting with the end in mind, you free yourself to think from first principles. You’re not thinking how to improve the current situation. You’re thinking what a good end result looks like — and the two are often very different.
I’ve seen this first hand in my own career. In one company we were looking for ways to find efficiencies with a particular vendor, who was our core supplier for one of our best-selling and most profitable products. We examined the process every which way. We looked at shipping schedules, goods-in processes, how best to store the products in our warehouse, and so on.
Then one person pointed out, “What we’re really trying to do is get the product from the supplier to the customer as quickly as possible, right?”
“So can the supplier just dispatch it straight to the customer?”
As it turns out, yes, they can. It saves us hours of labour and improves our cash conversion cycle. We don’t have to unpack the goods into our warehouse, pay the supplier, then repack and dispatch the goods at a later point when a customer places an order. It’s all direct from supplier to customer. All we do is invoice the customer, collect the money, then pay the supplier. 2
So how do you actually put this into action in your life, your career, or your company? The best way is to use the ABZ framework. Here’s a visualisation from Jack Butcher:
Of course, we’re going to start at the end, step Z. Step Z is the vivid vision. It’s how you want to have lived your life. It’s what sort of company you want to build It’s a 10-star guest experience.
Take the time to describe this in real detail. What does it look like? How are you or your team spending each day? How do you feel at the end of the day? The more detail, the better.
Step A is where you are right now. I assume you already know this.
Step B is the very next step towards your end goal. What can you do in the next 7-30 days to move you towards that step Z?
The aim is to get from A to B as quickly as possible. That builds momentum. It feels good. It gets you moving along that path to step Z — at which point you are now at a new point A, and you evaluate what the next step is towards your goal, and so on.
The challenge is to do this while also trying to avoid incrementalism, like we talked about above. That’s why starting with step Z is so important. You might realise that you can get a hell of a lot closer to that end goal than you think.
It’s also crucial that you avoid thinking about steps C, D, E, and F. It’s impossible to predict what those steps will be. By the time you get to step F you’ll change, the world will change, what you’re able to accomplish will change, and even your step Z might change. In fact, thinking about steps C-Z is a distraction from moving immediately to step B. It’s a form of procrastination.
It’s impossible to chart every step along that journey, so all you can do is get moving.
Because the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Just make sure you’re walking in the right direction.