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Planning under the Influence of Change
by Peter DeJager

My interest is in the Future, because I am going to spend the rest of my life there.
--Charles F. Kettering, 1876-1958 American Inventor

At the foundation of most Strategic Plans there rests a simple question, "Where do we want our organization to be in five years, and what must we do, and when must we do it, to get there?"

That question looks like a good one. The answer will have all the attributes of a sound objective. Asking, "Where do we want our organization to be in five years?" entices us to paint a picture of what we want to achieve. We can call this picture our "Vision" or "Vision Statement", in either case it creates a target worthy of our attention.

Since these things don't happen by accident, "What must we do, and when must we do it, to get there?", lays out the steps towards a rudimentary project plan. Since we know what we want to achieve, we now define the "what" and the "when" of our "To Do" list for the next few years.

Most strategic planners would agree that these questions lies at the core of the strategic planning process. It is certainly the most common approach, and while sometimes the objectives we choose are overly simplistic, perhaps even ambiguous i.e., "We want to be the world leader in 'X'", they provide something to work towards.

And that's the issue. Unless a key, unspoken, problem is addressed by some hidden assumption, this type of planning cannot succeed other than by luck, no matter much effort is put into that project plan.

Here's the problematic snag, we cannot answer the question, "Where do we want our organization to be in five years?", unless we first answer a bigger and more complex question, "Where will the World be in five years?"

Crafting a Strategic Plan is sort of like trying to get to Mars, or running to catch a baseball, you don't go to where it is now, but to where it will be, when you finally get there.

Obvious? Of course it is. Yet most Strategic Plans make no attempt to determine where the World will be, they plan as if the World stands still in time, when in reality it is rocketing off in some unknown direction under the influence of Moore's Law, politics, demographic trends, diminishing resources, new opportunities, aging populations, shifting alliances and a thousand other trivial and humungous forces.

If we do try to target the future, we plan for it based upon our understanding of the past. ie. Transactions have been growing at a rate of 10% per year, so we will plan for similar growth in the coming years.

New developments, "wild cards" if you wish, can erase all credibility from this type of reasoning. The rise of digital music and the ease, with which it is shared over the Internet, eroded the relevance of all historical sales figures for the music industry.

Of course, our real problem is that answering the question, "Where will the World be in five years?" is a challenge... as Yogi Berra, the great Philosopher King and sometime baseball player said, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."

Tough? Yes, definitely. Impossible? No. Even if we choose to ignore them, there are developments we know will affect us in the future. Here are a few worthy of consideration;

The Collapse of Constraints: (The result of Moore's Law)
Computer and telecommunication technology is going to get more powerful, faster, cheaper, more reliable, more accessible, smaller, cooler (in more ways than one), better and more convenient.

The Implications?
What technologies would you like to implement in your organization today, but can't because of some limitation? Chances are that within the next five years, the natural advance of technology will collapse those constraints. Then what? Here are some reminders from our recent past, imminent future, their impact and possible implications;
  • Digital Music => Copyright => Music Industry Sales?
  • Telecommunications => Offshore Outsourcing => Local White Collar Work?
  • Voice over IP => Personal Communications => Phone Companies?
  • RFID => Inventory Costs => Privacy & Security?
  • Flat Screen TVs => Redesign of living space => Furniture Sales?
(An off topic question we might ask ourselves, "Which solutions implemented a decade ago, are the wrong solutions considering current technology?")

The Passage of Time: (Demographics)
We're getting older... all of us, soon the elderly will outnumber the young whippersnappers.

The Implications?
No secret here, as we get older we change in predictable ways. How do you differ from your parents? Imagine their buying habits and lifestyle rolled out as the norm. Imagine the bulk of marketing targeted at something other than teenage tastes, how does that affect your business... more importantly, the business of your clients.

Not to mention of course, the financial impact on poorly designed, naïve and idealistic Social Security programmes.

New Markets & New Competitors: (The Third World is no longer Third)
One word: China.

The Implications?

According to some statistics, America makes up 5% of the world population and consumes 30% of the world resources. Imagine a new nation, with the buying power, consumption, resources and production capability of 5-10 USAs.

Now... Can you imagine a Future where this juggernaut of a country does NOT affect your business?

These are just three of the many developments you might choose to incorporate into your strategic plan. Which ones do you factor into your planning? That depends on how far you choose to cast your attention. What could provide a threat or opportunity to your business? Or are you convinced that tomorrow is just today, plus a day?

How exactly do you factor in these future forces? There are no easy answers, yet there are lots of different approaches, tools and methodologies; from generic Scenario Planning, to Joel Barker's Implication Wheel; from simple 'What If' sessions to more involved Brainstorming. The goal is not to do the impossible, we cannot predict with great accuracy what tomorrow will bring, but we can get a sense of what tomorrow might have in store for us and put together a Strategic Plan which will perform well against a handful of likely future possibilities.

No matter how we factor them in, the sooner we do it the better. As the quote at the start suggested, we're going to live in the Future; we might as well look forward to it.

(c) 2004 Peter de Jager - Peter is a Keynote Speaker, writer and consultant focusing on issues relating to Change Management and the Future. All Rights Reserved.

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