I wish most CEOs could spend some time working as farmers. Because if they did, they would learn that farmers who ignore their fields in the spring, play around all summer, and expect to hit the ground hard in the fall and have a great crop discover the hard way that farming is all about patience and long range planning.
By comparison, most small businesses – and I’ve looked at hundreds – stink at long range planning. Their CEOs usually tell me they don’t have the money or the time to plan strategically. In fact, their eyes usually glaze over when I talk about strategic plans, probably imagining some stiff inflexible document that limits all future imagination and growth. It is hard for them to think of it as a long-term flexible guide helps keep them on track.
At one level, I can’t blame them. Our evolutionary biology is not wired for long range planning.
When our prehistoric ancestors were fighting wooly mammoths, they weren’t thinking about what to do three years or even three weeks from now – because if they did, they probably ended up dead. This is why most of us are better at stepwise tasks developed through tradition, like hunting, preparing meals, and fighting fires in your IT department.
Moreover, we tend to have an amazing resistance to change. I hear the phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” all too often. Most the time people are either depressed about the past, or worried about the immediate future. The long term simply isn’t their problem.
I’ve got a tough job as a change agent. The only way I can get people’s attention is to have them imagine a future state that helps them see the benefits of long-term planning. It’s my job to get them to think past their current problems and workload, and live in a present moment where every step they take lays the groundwork for a new future: one guided by the risks, benefits and possibilities that lie ahead of them. Only then I can get them to start thinking about strategy and developing a plan.
I often wish companies had a new position called Farmer in Chief. Someone who is strategically responsible for analyzing the traditions of the past, learning from these challenges, and helping a small business grow from this knowledge. Someone who realizes that companies that invest in long-term planning, create a vision for growth, and revisit this plan over time are generally much more successful than their competitors.
One more farming analogy: planning involves more than taking steps each spring for a bountiful harvest in the fall. It also involves a year-to-year plan to deal with things that could put the entire harvest in jeopardy, such as inclement weather, drought or pestilence. Without a solid five year plan, just one bad year could be the last. Disruptive change is the rule in IT as well as farming, and this is perhaps the best argument of all for long-term planning – it can not only help you flourish, but survive.