What Epictetus Taught Me About Vision

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DNA

As president of Policy Works Inc., I spend a lot of energy on the vision of our company and our product. Vision is an important element of leadership and management, but it can sometimes be a difficult concept to pin down and apply, so I'm alert to viewpoints that can help clarify my thinking.

Over the Christmas holidays I found something useful in an unexpected place: I was reading The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness by the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Around 2,000 years ago, Epictetus studied the human condition with the aim of providing practical advice to the common man.

As a Stoic philosopher, he concentrates on accepting the conditions of your life and limiting your concerns to that which you can control. Difficulties arise, he teaches, when you are distracted by the lifestyles and rewards of others, and you begin to lose track of your own strengths, weaknesses and values.

"Within the divine order, we each have our own special calling," he writes, "Listen to yours and follow it faithfully."

You might, for example, be envious of the glory and celebrity of professional athletes. But unless you're willing to give up what you have now and to make a lifetime of sacrifices, (and unless you start with a healthy dose of natural talent) attempting to follow that path will bring you frustration and unhappiness. Staying in scope, as the developers say, is critical to success.

So, how does Epictetus' philosophy help with corporate vision? It's about self knowledge and choosing. There are many paths in business. The clearer your self knowledge--your understanding of what Epictetus calls your "special calling"--the more effectively you can choose among the opportunities you encounter and the more faithfully you can follow your own unique path.

Know thy product's DNA

Part of knowing your product is understanding the fundamental approaches that went into its design, the traits that are in its DNA. If you have a good understanding of these traits (self knowledge) and choose faithfully in accordance with them, they become strengths. But if you lack understanding, or succumb to temptation and choose unwisely, then those same attributes become weaknesses.

Looking at our product, Policy Works, one of the fundamental traits is that it is a document generator. From the data entered by users, the software creates the various documents required in the insurance lifecycle, such as submissions, quotations, and binders.

As with every design, document generation has tradeoffs. On the upside, users can efficiently and accurately create the many variations of documents to acquire and service a client, without the effort and mistakes of the traditional approach of creating new documents by modifying old documents. But on the downside, users who expect the same flexibility as with a word processor may chafe at the restrictions of a generated document.

Many choices fall out from our knowledge of this one trait. For instance:

How do we represent this trait to potential clients? Document generation doesn't fit everyone's needs, so explaining it clearly during the sales process helps those who value greater consistency over flexibility to opt in.

What enhancements do we add to our software? Users may ask for features to increase the flexibility they have with their documents, but compromising the design principles to add features can lead to complexity, inconsistency, defect-prone software, and other bloatware problems...so choose wisely.

Likewise, know your company's DNA

More broadly, the same relation between self knowledge and choice applies to your whole business: your people, your customers, the value you bring to the market, and so on. Your understanding of aspects of your business controls how successfully you can choose.

Take hiring, for instance. Our people are creative, playful, principled, passionate about their work, and driven by excellence. Laid back, but in the sense of balanced and centered, not of slacking. Understanding our own profile enables better choices in hiring, but only if we remain faithful to our path.

Some of our unsuccessful hires had all the right skills and experience for their role, but didn't match the profile, which lead to conflict, unrest and eventually the decision to part ways. And some people who didn't yet have all the necessary skills or experience, but matched the profile, thrived in our environment and soon picked up the necessary skills. We've learned through experience, self knowledge isn't sufficient: you must also faithfully follow your path.

Vision, of course, is about the future, about where you're going. But the path begins with where you are now. And your success on that path depends on whether you listen to who you are and faithfully follow the path that's right for you.

Topics: President Update