How to Implement Far-Future, Reality-Based Strategic Planning

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Why should a local company bother to carve out a 30-year strategic plan? Here’s one reason: to clearly separate today’s ambitions from tomorrow’s legacy.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, a sound long-term plan is built on small actions taken immediately, not on grand gestures. Here’s an example.

Jamaicans who travel to Trinidad notice a small but telling difference right away. At night, Port of Spain and its environs are “brighter.” Trinidadians who land in Jamaica at night say the same: Kingston is “darker.” This noticeable difference is not emotional but empirical: one country is an oil and gas producer, while the other is struggling to find the foreign currency needed to pay its energy bills. As a result, recession-hit Jamaicans look for reasons to turn off electricity, seeing every light left on as a huge cost.

The habit that’s developed seems like an insignificant one today in the present energy boom. An effort to be energy conscious would seem superfluous. However, a company that develops the small practices leading to energy conservation would be preparing itself for a time when Trinidad’s subsidies are removed. It would be able to accomplish goals that the average firm would not even fathom.

This is just an example of the benefit of simultaneously planning for the long term while focusing on small, frequent actions. With the right planning process, any company can project itself into the future and consider the kind of “what-ifs” that change the way business is done today. By taking big trends seriously, firms can use them to define a destination that inspires bold actions right away.

By contrast, RIM, the manufacturer of Blackberry smartphones, didn’t do this kind of projection. As a result, its U.S. market share plummeted from over 50% in 2009 to less than 3% today. How should your company look beyond the conventional wisdom to see future reality with greater clarity?

1. Welcome contrary views.

As the CLICO/HCU inquiry reveals, squelching contrary views is a fast track to failure. A company that suppresses alternate and uncomfortable points of view is setting itself up to fail, and it’s especially easy to do this in a growing, healthy economy. It’s much harder to introduce and encourage conflict when there is no urgent or even apparent need to do so.

One method is to introduce outsiders with sharply defined opinions to act as professional devil’s advocates. Another is to conduct interviews with participants that help them sharpen intuitions into well-articulated points of view. During the retreat, allowing difficult conversations with uncertain outcomes is an absolute requirement.

2. Look at long horizons.

It’s often almost impossible for leaders to plan and consider big short-term changes. The psychological need to feel comfortable is just too strong. However, it’s easier to look to big changes in the future. For example, the adjustments needed to thrive in an economy without subsidies are easier to see from a distance, without the sense of an immediate threat. Then, creativity becomes the driver rather than fear, allowing the executive team the freedom needed to go beyond everyday boundaries.

3. Craft adjustment strategies.

Using contrary views to look far over the horizon is not just for intellectual stimulation. The purpose is to create a specific, measurable vision that can be back-cast from the future back to today. That’s how short-term adjustments and course-corrections can become apparent. Saving energy, which might seem silly today, becomes critical when a longer horizon is seriously considered. These adjustments, if applied consistently, add up to corporate transformations.

4. Look for a legacy.

Another benefit of a long-term planning exercise is that it takes the participants away from their current crop of concerns: bonuses, pension plans and corporate ambitions. It allows them to squarely confront the legacy they are leaving behind.

Consider this fact: decades in the future, a strategic planning activity will be undertaken in which the future leaders of your company will be talking about the performance of today’s leaders. Will your team be judged as a group of wise men and women who saw what was coming and made hard sacrifices and investments in order to preserve the company’s future? Or will your team be judged as fools who fiddled while Rome was burning?

Steve Jobs insisted that the inside of an Apple machine (which only technicians would ever see) should be just as aesthetically pleasing as the outside. He taught his employees that excellence lay in the details that others overlooked, and it’s no accident that he was able to take a failing company and turn it into the world’s most valuable in just over a decade.

Companies that take the easy path are fiddling, when they should be looking for small actions driven by a vision – far beyond the sum of personal ambitions.

Published in the Trinidad Newsday.