Why is thinking long term important for strong strategy? Simply because strategy is about the future, not today. If you don't think long term, then you won't be creating strategy that will help you get to your preferred future. You will be building strategy that helps you stay where you are today - because you will be doing more of the same.

And, more of the same usually means that you are very busy, working very hard, but often not feeling like you are achieving very much. How often do we hear people say things like:

  • "Stop the world, I want to get off!"
  • "If only I had time to think..."
  • "I'm too busy dealing with the present to be able to think about the future!"

The busier you get, the harder it gets to find time to think about the things that matter. You are consumed with short-term thinking, and just trying to make it through the day. You are focused on the urgent, not the important.

If you don’t think long term, everything seems important and requires action today. With a long term focus, it's surprising that almost all things are of little or no importance, and few things require action. You can begin to focus your attention on these few things, rather than trying to control the many.

What does this mean for strategy?

For strategy, the lack of a long term thinking capacity to underpin strategic planning means that people in your organisation rarely have the time to think systematically about its future:

  • to explore major external drivers of change, and to imagine what might happen as those drivers intersect and collide into the future,
  • to decide what sort of future will work for the organisation to make it sustainable in the long term (10-20 years),
  • to agree on how to get to that future and what to watch along the way,
  • to agree on what needs to be done today to move towards the preferred future, and avoid the bad futures.

Instead, the focus is often on producing the plan. Does this scenario sound familiar?

The Vice-Chancellor/CEO announces that a review of the strategic plan is going to happen. The announcement comes with an assurances that staff will be able to contribute to the development of the plan. Usually, there's an issues paper of some sort that comes out with the review announcement, so people's thinking is directed to issues that someone else has decided is important for the university/organisation.

A planning workshop with senior managers is then organised - often held at night or on weekends, because we are all too busy to leave our desks during the day, aren't we? There's usually some presentations, some small group work, a closing summary session and off we all go back to our desks, and that new pile of work that's built up while we've been away. A few thousand dollars will have been spent on a facilitator for the day.

Someone goes off to write up a plan to document the strategic directions agreed at the workshop, the Vice-Chancellor CEO changes it and then endorses it for release. The draft plan gets sent out to staff for feedback and comment. Not many staff bother commenting because they know if won't make a difference - the CEO has already decided what the strategy will be. The plan gets published, it looks great, but it really doesn't inform decision making on a day-to-day basis. And, people can't really see themselves in the plan, because it's not their plan, it's the CEO's plan.

When it comes time to report against the objectives in the plan, people glean what they can from what they have been doing all year, and write that up as a performance report, retrofitting their work into the plan categories. Whew! Done for another year - now what was I doing?

This might be an exaggeration, but you get the picture. Despite a theoretically open process, a strategic plan is produced that largely reflects the thinking of a few. Yet, the many are expected to implement the plan. It should be no surprise that many great looking plans stumble or fail in the implementation stage.

The next post on this topic will contain some ideas for shifting strategic planning from the present into the future.