A Swimming Pool in the Basement

Category: Strategy Published on Sep 17 2015

I was recently reminded of a planning retreat I attended in the 90’s. At the time I worked as assistant controller for a small business. Our task was to envision a future for the company. We were encouraged to be creative and think out of the box. We were told that no idea was too outrageous; we were to share them all.

And we tested the limits. Every time one person had a crazy idea, someone else would top it. For example, in real life staff members were divided up in three offices spread over two counties. One of our ideas was to purchase a large building that would house us all in one location. In addition, this building would have both a swimming pool and a bowling alley in the basement for us to relax. Back in the 90’s this was pretty out there.

I also remember the sour look on the owner’s face as he listened. And the snide comment he made a few days later: “That was a waste of time; no one had any idea of reality.”

What I don’t remember is a single idea being implemented.

In effect, the owner dismissed the entire effort because we had enjoyed ourselves and dreamed big, castle in the sky dreams. What the owner missed entirely was the subtext of the conversation. As employees, we yearned for more opportunities to socialize and get to know each other better.

In retrospect, what was missing during the planning retreat was someone to ask the question of ‘Why?’ followed by ‘How?’.

 - Why did we want a big office?

 - Why did we want to all be in the same place?

 - How can we accomplish this outcome without purchasing a huge building with an indoor swimming pool?

As a facilitator, I have worked with numerous groups of people who have dreamed about the future of their organizations. Sometimes the dreams all stayed within in the realm of reality. And those companies frequently achieved their goals.

Sometimes, however, the dreams are large. For example, I worked with a farmers’ market who was in their second year and envisioned an indoor, year-round marketplace. Have they achieved that vision yet? No, not yet. But that goal motivated them. It was not seen as out of reach, simply large and in the future.

It’s only when the dreams become fantasies that they stop being motivating. And yet, fantasy belongs in the planning process. Too many times for me to count, I have seen absolutely crazy, out of touch ideas that were suggested as a joke morph into the best solution.

The same process works in visioning and strategy creation. Invite in the fantasy futures. Then look at these ideas and see what ties them together; what about them makes people desire them? Then start looking for realistic visions that encompass the underlying subtext. Don’t be like the owner of the small business I worked for; don’t toss out the swimming pool in the basement without first identifying why people thought it was a good idea in the first place.