How Innovators Can Be Dreamers Without Fantasizing

By Shlomo Maital



 Dreamcatcher (2003 movie)


 One of the hardest dilemmas for innovators and entrepreneurs, I’ve discovered over the years, is this:  How to be a visionary dreamer …without the dreams or fantasies. 

   What I mean is this:  Research by NYU psychologists Michael Sagristano and Yaakov Trope, along with Nira Liberman (J. of Experimental Psychology: General, vol 131, no. 3) reveals what we all know:  for events that are close to us in time (next month, next 3 months), we can clearly see the downside, pitfalls, problems, challenges.  But for events that are distant, we tend to see the upside (i.e. we imagine launching a successful startup) without seeing concretely all the myriad things that can and do go wrong.  Trope’s CLT (construal level theory) says, an activity is less attractive, the closer in time it is, when the concrete details are less pleasant than the abstract goals.

    I’ve seen this so many times with startup-ists.  They dream, they have a vision, both are vital – but they do not see the concrete details, what has to be done, day to day, and what might go wrong. That is why I insist that my students do two things: Describe concretely the vision, a kind of photograph of the future, to see themselves in five years running a highly successful startup,  but also:  List all the many things that can go wrong, in the most concrete imagineable terms. 

    CLT theory explains such behaviors as gambling (we envision winning, but not losing every cent we have), buying a TV, and getting engaged.  In general, optimism is a highly positive trait.  But somehow we must temper it with a dose of realism, without allowing the realism to kill the dreams and the vision. 

   Have you noticed that things we dream about, often are somewhat less wonderful when our dreams are fulfilled? 

   Trope says the ideal decision-maker takes into account both abstract and concrete aspects of distant-future courses of action.  The ‘concrete’ part is very difficult. That is why we need a structured method for launching an innovation or a business, that forces us to concretize it, even five years hence.    Innovators must dream…dream on, dream on,  but at the same  time, temper their dreaming with cold hard reality.  I call this ‘head in the clouds, feet on the ground’.  Combining the two is very very difficult, but it is essential.