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How Many Futures Are You Considering?

Have you ever noticed how when people talk about what lies ahead we always say the future? As if there is one, and only one, immutable future that will come to pass.

Fact is, there are an unlimited number of possible futures, and it’s up to us to create the one we want. This is especially true when engaging in strategic planning.

Many leaders and managers mistakenly see strategic planning as a process of predicting the future. In reality, it’s a process of creating the future, one that will provide ample rewards to the organization and all its stakeholders. Assuming that only one future exists can lock us into a course of action that may not serve our organizations well.

Despite the dangers, it’s easy to see how we fall into the pattern of thinking there is only one future.

We start out by investing a lot of time and energy in crafting a strategic plan, which is nothing more than a blueprint for achieving a certain destination at some point in the future. In other words, we write a plan for creating the future we want. Once the plan is finalized and in place, we then devote all our organizational resources toward achieving that future exactly as planned.

The problem is that strategic plans never unfold exactly as written. The world simply doesn’t work that way. Too many factors, both internal and external, are involved for any plan to unfold without some degree of change along the way.

But instead of making adjustments in response to changing circumstances, many leaders insist on sticking to the plan as written. They either see the changes as temporary blips to be ridden out. Or, more often, they get too locked into the future as spelled out in the plan, and fail to respond to significant changes in markets, customers and global conditions.

How can you avoid falling into the single-future trap?

Start by automatically assuming that your market is constantly changing (it is!), and monitor it on a regular basis. Then develop a formal process for managing your strategy.

Select a time, preferably once a month but no less than once a quarter, to review your strategy. During the meetings, identify any changes in your environment, review how your strategy is unfolding compared to how you thought it would, and make any necessary adjustments to the plan.

When monitoring the environment, pay close attention to uncertainties. For example, what assumptions are you making about your markets and customers, and are they still valid? What are your customers and suppliers uncertain about? What are their customers and suppliers uncertain about?

When reviewing your strategy implementation, ask questions like: What has changed, internally or externally, that might alter or undermine our strategy? Is our strategy working as expected? Are we executing correctly? If not, what do we need to refine or change in order to get back on track?

If envisioning multiple futures seems like a waste of time, consider the current plight of Toyota and General Motors. Do you think Toyota envisioned a future where they would face $16 million dollar fines and billions of dollars in lawsuits? Did GM imagine that one day they would need a massive government bailout to keep from going out of business?

Certainly they did not plan those outcomes. Yet they happened anyway. We can only wonder where Toyota and GM might be today if they had taken the time to consider many different futures rather than just the one where they reign as unchallenged market leaders.

When thinking about possible futures, I’m always reminded of the old Star Trek show (yes, I am a closet Trekkie) where the crew members of the Enterprise used a “holodeck” to act out various possible scenarios. Obviously we don’t have the technology (yet) to create fantasy simulations of that caliber.

But I would suggest that leaders and companies strive to create virtual holodecks in the minds of all employees so that they practice thinking and considering on a regular basis. Help people get in the habit of pondering what seems unreasonable, impossible or even incredulous. That way, when sudden market changes throw your strategic plan for a loop, you won’t get stuck following a plan of action that no longer makes sense.

The future always seems to get here sooner than we expect. The question for business leaders is, “Which one will it be… One you created or one you have to deal with?”

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