I never get an argument when I point out that planning is a future-oriented activity. In fact, an extended planning horizon is a key factor that differentiates strategic planning from an organization’s annual operating plan. The complex, resource-intensive nature of strategic initiatives may dictate a time frame that spans a two-, four-, or even seven-year planning cycle. Although far less common, some organizations maintain a vision that can span ten years or more.
As you might expect, timing is relative and specific to the organization and industry in question. For a software company, then, an appropriate long-range plan might encompass eighteen months—and possibly fewer. But if you’re an electric utility and plan to build a nuclear power plant, four to seven years is certainly more realistic. For most organizations, a two- to four-year planning horizon seems to be the sweet spot: It provides a time frame that allows for specific decision making without being overly speculative. It also allows for a sufficient buffer against changes in the industry or economy that might necessitate a minor or more drastic change in direction.
Regardless of their time frame, strategic organizations do their best to develop a sense of what the future might or should look like. Their intent is to drive decision making, create organizational focus, and provide a roadmap for action and accomplishment within the prescribed time period—all of which are very laudable objectives. In fact, these are some of the more critical objectives of a viable strategic process. There’s only one problem. . . . They’re bound up in time.
For many organizations, reconciling future-oriented activity with the challenges of the moment can cause strategic intentions to break down. This often comes from one simple and incontrovertible fact: You can’t work on the future tomorrow. No, really. Because, unless you hadn’t noticed, tomorrow never actually comes. It’s always right now, this moment. This is where your opportunity lies. This is where and when you can choose to create change, move things forward, get things done. Real strategy happens now.
For the most part, the past is a memory (though often quite incomplete) and the future is a dream (very enticing, but a dream nonetheless). As a strategist, I’ve got nothing against dreams; they play an important role in a comprehensive strategic process. But even dreams happen now. Planning happens now. Execution happens now. Now is the only time we have. This concept is the key to understanding the paradox of planning. We develop a sense of direction, but we must live it right now. If I’m planning for a business trip, I need to get a plane ticket (right now), haul out the suitcase (right now), and write the speech (right now). Every moment is now; every activity happens in this moment.
So why is this important, and how does it apply to strategy? It’s really very simple: If we expect something different tomorrow, we need to make it happen today. We need to incorporate strategic activity within the operational challenges of our day-to-day process. We need to learn something new today, we need to move our plan forward today, and we need to create strategic momentum . . . today!
One inherent weakness in a strong strategic orientation is the tendency to become overly fixated on the future. When we realize that the only time we have is now, it becomes clear that what happens in this moment is the most important thing. Are you doing everything necessary to accomplish what you’ve set out to do? Only you can tell. And you can only tell me in this moment.