By Richard Martin

Business leaders must constantly decide on how much time to devote to future planning versus present action. The needs of day-to-day management and decision-making tend to swamp us as leaders and managers. We get caught up in immediate, tactical issues, and lose sight of the bigger picture, where we are ultimately headed, and what we will do once they we there.

Should we focus on immediate goals and problems, or should we live more in the future, even to the point of only considering our long-term vision and development of our organizations? At extremes, we could devote all our time and resources to the present or, conversely, we could be pure “visionaries.” In fact, wisdom lies somewhere in between, neither being purely myopic nor purely far-sighted. But how should we make this decision, and how do we determine when and how much they need to shift our attention from the near to the medium to the long term?

The key lies in what I call the “future paradox.” Some decisions and actions will have immediate or short-term results. Others will take longer to come to fruition, even to the extent of taking years before they are fully actualized and the results are in. This can generate a significant lag between decision, action, and results, between cause and effect. The problem comes from this lag.

We can’t afford to be stuck in the present, but the further out we look, the less the definition and clarity, the greater the uncertainty. Present commitments and decisions are essential to build future readiness and achieving distant objectives, but these may severely constrain our future freedom of action.

 

This is the future paradox: We must decide and act now to generate short-, medium-, and long-term effects, but we can only do this with increasingly fuzzy knowledge and information. In other words, change takes time, but conditions can and do change between our decision point and the time that our actions start taking effect.

We have a current reality and we articulate a vision of where we want to be in the future. This vision is nothing but the overarching objective of our undertaking. To speak in military terms, it can be to win a war or achieve an peaceful outcome in our nation’s interests. But it can also be to capture a road crossing and then be ready to face a counter-attack. In business, it can be a strategic goal, for instance to launch a major international expansion, or it can be much more mundane and tactical, for instance to win a contract with a new client. It is the future vision that drives most of our decisions. The gap between the objective and the current reality is the fuel for planning and decision-making. It frames our actions in the short, medium, and long terms. Over time, we should approach—and eventually arrive—at our ultimate destination, our vision, or overarching objective.

Some things we can do relatively easily and quickly. These decisions lead to short-term plans and actions. Others take more preparation and lead time. These are our medium-term plans and actions. Finally, some things we must start right away, with a view to gaining results only in the longer-term future. For instance, we can be facing a decision on whether to invest in a new factory. We must secure the capital and start the building or acquisition process now, but it can take months or years before the new facility comes on line. This requires a long-term plan and actions.

To make matters even more complex, though, the definition of short, medium, and long terms depends on the scope of responsibilities and roles. For a large company, the long-term can be, in some cases, decades. For a sales person or a production team, it can be tomorrow or next week. It is the scope of activities and effects that determines the extent of the time horizons under consideration.

© 2017 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.

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