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Most of us have been involved in a “visioning” session of some sort, and they’re generally eye-rollers. Some well-intended and specific thoughts are watered down, words adjusted, and the ultimate result being either a collection of big words that don’t really mean anything (Google’s now-infamous “Don’t be evil” tagline from its code of conduct) or a milquetoast collection of phrases that are ultimately a blinding flash of the obvious like The Bank of New York: “We strive to be the acknowledged global leader and preferred partner in helping our clients succeed in the world’s rapidly evolving financial markets.”

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Consider for a moment if an individual spoke like this. Imagine meeting a new acquaintance who announced that they “Will completely redefine what it means to be a human by delivering unprecedented excellence that sets the global standard for humans everywhere.” Or perhaps if they’re less inspired: “I strive to wake up each morning, and do several things as best I can, and generally deal with whatever the world throws at me.”

Not just another collection of pretty words

Most mission and vision statements fall short because they ultimately must please everyone, from employees to the friendly folks down in legal, to marketing, and even the general public for large companies. This often results in a statement that sounds nice and is so completely generic and inoffensive as to become meaningless.

An ambition on the other hand should have some defined components. At a minimum, it should articulate:

  1. What you want to accomplish
  2. Who you’re serving
  3. How you’ll measure success
  4. When you expect to realize the ambition

This list forces you to get specific. Most IT shops have some nice-sounding words in a PowerPoint deck somewhere about serving IT’s customers with excellence or some other superlative, but they lack a specific measurement or a timeframe when this change will be realized.

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“I want to complete a 50K trail race before my 43rd birthday” is a simple example of a personal ambition that checks all those boxes, just as “We will solve 99% of all employee and customer IT issues within 24 hours, by 2022” hits the mark. You might even have two or three ambitions at any given time, against which you regularly benchmark your shop and refresh or replace them every few months.

The power of ambition

With a specific, measurable objective in place, it suddenly becomes much easier to decide if you’re pursuing the right objectives in everything from your hiring practices, to how an individual employee spends his or her day. If your ambition(s) are related to launching innovative new projects, it should be easier to prioritize your IT spending. Similarly, if an employee finds him or herself focused on activities that are not related to your IT ambitions, it’s likely time for some coaching or thoughtful discussion on whether that employee is being provided with the right goals and measurement criteria.

You’ll occasionally find that you’re engaging in activities that are in direct conflict with your stated ambition, which is actually a key feature of the ambition process rather than a defect. If you find yourself having to frequently spend resources in areas that are outside of or conflict with your ambition, then it’s time to engage in a frank discussion of whether that ambition is still valid. Just as an individual with a bold fitness ambition should rethink that ambition if they can’t make time for training, or would rather watch TV than train, so too should you revisit your ambitions if you are unable to allocate time, money or other investment toward achieving them.

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This dissonance between reality and ambition should also serve as an early indicator that it may be time for some blunt talks with your peers and leaders. If you’ve created a set of ambitions that your leadership has pledged to support, yet they’re slowing you with demands that conflict with this ambition, there’s a clear demonstration that either something has changed and your ambitions need to be restated, or that the organization doesn’t actually value the goals stated in your ambition. In this scenario, it’s much easier to have a discussion around whether the organization changed or the ambition wasn’t really valid or supported to begin with rather than engaging in finger-pointing and speculation.

With so much change driven by everything from technology to pandemics, it’s easy to let events push you around like a pinball in a maddening arcade game. A few hours invested in articulating an ambition or two that’s clear, measurable and time-limited can put you back in the driver’s seat, and serve as a tool that keeps you, your leadership and the broader organization accountable.