Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others – Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift’s principal claim to fame is as the author of Gulliver’s Travels. But in coining the subject of this post, the Augustan satirist also succeeded in writing one of the most oft quoted maxims on leadership.

You will find the original text in Thoughts on Various Subjects, his equivalent of a bulging Moleskin notebook of bon mots and banter next to this comment on marriage:

Matrimony hath many children – Repentance, Discord, Poverty, Jealousy, Sickness, Spleen, Loathing etc

The book contains many spikes of observational comedy like this, but Swift living in highly volatile times, had chosen the wrong side and now had plenty of time on his hands to aphorize at length in his Irish vicarage.

Perhaps all satirists have a well-developed eye for spotting hidden truths that are invisible to others. A capacity for subversive perception can provide just the sudden intellectual breakthrough needed to power something new, significant and even revolutionary.

I had a personal lesson on this phenomenon thanks to the experiences of another writer. As a student on a Creative Writing MA, I was lucky enough to have Sarah Dunant as one of my tutors. In one of her guest lectures, she told the class how she came to swop the world of formulaic thrillers for the highly acclaimed series of novels about the Italian Renaissance. Finding herself in Florence after a major life event, and with a tremendous passion for history, Sarah began to gorge on all available aspects of the Medici Renaissance. In all her reading, however, she was struck by how little women seemed to feature in the story. This led her to pose the strategically pivotal question: Did women actually have a Renaissance? The Birth of Venus and a number of other superbly researched novels featuring nuns, courtesans and heiresses suggests the answer and provides a bold new narrative.

Finding new angles and perspectives on old questions has always been a vital source of generating energy and hypotheses to create something new, and recently techniques like reframing have become fashionable as methods to illuminate positive new directions hidden by the clutter of the status quo.

Reframing involves taking the accepted facts as seen, but attempts to discover new insights and meanings by challenging all conceptual or emotional settings, assumptions and viewpoints. Reframing the problem as defined can be a powerful way of seeing patterns in data we’ve missed, or take us to viewing points where something hidden and yet always present in the landscape can become clearer.

Classic left brain strategists find reframing difficult as there are no easy guarantied procedures that will illuminate the strategic equivalent of elven moon letters. To use the tool successfully, you need to be able to stand back from the trenches of data analysis and be comfortable in taking some non-standard excursions, if you are to stand any chance of making a significant perceptual breakthrough.

Too much data analysis will blind as much as it can guide decisions. If you want a compelling vision, step away the Big Data Front for a while. Enjoy exploring the boundaries of the map. Feel comfortable turning it through 90 degrees. Check all assumptions very, very carefully and then watch out for flying exclamation marks.

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