How to Bridge the Gap Between Aspirations and Reality in Business

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There’s an old joke: What’s the difference between medicine and poison? Answer: The dose. The same might be said of the difference between a business vision and wishful thinking — they exist along a spectrum. It all comes back to the gap between the two. Having a dream can inspire action and keep our sense of motivation alive. But if the gap between vision and reality is too vast to be understood or executed, we can grow frustrated in pursuit of that same dream, leading to a profound sense of defeat.

The answer is harmonizing our ambitions with what is genuinely achievable, while being careful not to undersell ourselves and what we are capable of — in other words, dream big but plan accordingly. Then, create a step-by-step road map for the big dream and break it off into achievable milestones connecting the steps.

Related: The Best Entrepreneurs Are Dreamers Who Can Match Their Vision With Reality

Investing strategy into hope

“Hope is not a strategy.” This quote has many fathers, including the football coach Vince Lombardi and the film producer James Cameron. It was used by one CEO surveyed by McKinsey to describe the need to have tough strategic conversations along the road to achieving the dream. Backing the vision with strategic thinking puts hope in its rightful place.

According to positive psychology, hopefulness is a life-sustaining human strength. It allows us to think in a goal-oriented way and lay out the pathway to achieve those goals. “Good” hope, not fantastical thinking or a pollyannaish defense against a harsh world, also fosters our agency ——the belief that we can make the necessary changes to bring our aspirations into form.

Happiness exists along a continuum, and the smaller the gap, the happier you will be and the more likely you will find investors to share your vision. But, when faced with a lack of available resources, don’t lose hope. Getting honest about the distance between aspiration and reality will help new leaders craft a strategy to bridge the gap. Then, it’s a matter of finding ways to forge ahead through incremental progress.

Related: How Small Incremental Steps Can Help You Achieve Your Largest Goals

Set achievable milestones

It’s well known that the majority of startups fail, suggesting too many budding entrepreneurs don’t properly assess the gap and end up falling off the cliff. However, data from 2024 shows that while just 10% of startups go under in year one, this figure blows out to 70% in years two to five. Breaking up a business vision into achievable milestones is crucial to keeping it manageable, but without the solid fundamentals of financing, research, and targeting the right market, success may be short-lived.

The first year of a multi-year strategy builds confidence, but it’s crucial to keep momentum in the years that follow. The gap refers to not just the overarching vision but the smaller gaps between each year. Sometimes, sacrifices have to be made, such as leaders not even paying themselves as much as their staff until the business moves into sustainable profitability. If even an annual goal is a bridge too far, the same principle applies to setting quarterly milestones. This will build momentum.

When our aspirations are harmonized with our reality, every step towards those goals fuels happiness because we are engaged and purposeful. But there’s a catch: Our sense of fulfillment may not come so much from meeting our goals, as exceeding our own expectations. So, leave room for overachieving when breaking down big aspirations. Then, remember to celebrate your wins. It not only stimulates dopamine but strengthens relationships and helps us redouble our efforts for the next challenge.

Related: 6 Habits That Turn Dreams Into Reality

Pivot when facing obstacles

Some challenges to a five-year business plan just cannot be foreseen, especially when macroeconomic conditions change unpredictably. So when reality shifts, we must adjust our aspirations. If things are just taking longer than anticipated, then build it into the plan. In this sense, harmony does not have a fixed center of gravity and is dynamic by nature, so we must always be adapting to keep our goals and capacities within touching distance.

Agility is championed as a business virtue for this reason. Changing circumstances may mean a vision is going to take longer to realize. It may mean a detour is required. Or in the worst-case scenario, the original goal may just not be possible. Even then, not all is lost. One of the lessons of the pandemic for small businesses was to pivot into an existing strength, rather than leaping blindly into a new offering altogether.

But a word to the wise: Do not confuse a strategy with an objective — and be wary of idealism. Strategy is how we bridge the gap, but objectives are the signposts along the way. Mistaking one for the other can result in misaligned priorities and improper allocation of resources. Remember, happiness is a state of being — and if we cling so tightly to an aspiration that we forget our reality, we risk pushing it away.

Business, like life, is a balancing act of the known and the unknown. We cannot control everything, but we can be careful and deliberate in how we frame our aspirations and set goals toward their realization. As they tell Metro passengers in the U.K., “mind the gap” between the platform and the vehicle — between your starting point and how you are going to get to the destination. Harmonizing the two leads to happiness, because it builds trust that we can make our dreams a reality. There will be bumps along the way, of course, but the wise person knows riding them out can reveal deeper parts of our character and foster a more holistic experience of success.