The Challenge of Looking Ahead Without Getting Left Behind

There is an old proverb that says when you’re up to your neck in alligators it’s hard to remember that your original purpose was to drain the swamp. There should be an addendum to that proverb: “When you’re up to your neck in alligators it’s hard to think about what comes after draining the swamp.”

If “draining the swamp” equates to the day-to-day operations of your business, the “what comes after draining the swamp” is focused on your long-term plans.  After you have successfully put out the immediate fires, then what?

For business owners of all stripes, in all verticals, one of the most challenging questions is this:  “what am I going to be doing and what is my company going to be doing five or ten years from now?” The importance of answering questions like this is emphasized at business seminars, in business magazine articles, and even Internet blogs.

The reason for the emphasis on planning is generally considered obvious. We live in a world where change is a constant:  the assumption is not if there will be change but how much change is there going to be. And how quickly is it going to come? In some industries it may seem that change happens at a manageable speed from one business cycle to another. But there are some industries in which change comes at the speed of light.

For most business owners there are numerous plates in the air demanding their attention.  There are issues of hiring, retention, and unfortunately an occasional termination. There is staying on top of hitting those short-term targets. And then there are always those cash flow issues. It is hard for business owners to think beyond the here and now.  In fast-changing industries,  thinking five or ten years ahead is a real challenge.

Business owners need to understand that the first step in preparing for the changes of tomorrow is setting aside time to think and learn today.  Sometimes, working on the business rather than in the business is your best way to long-term success. Peter Drucker once wrote that “leaders in business have the task first to keep their noses to the grindstone while lifting their eyes to the hills”. Drucker’s contemporary translation for modern business owners is that modern they must be keeping their focus both on producing results for the present and preparing for the future.  Christian business owners have the advantage of being led by the Holy Spirit.

The embracing of thinking and learning is not so much an issue of how many hours business owners have to set aside to understand industry changes and plan for the future. It is really about effectively answering particular questions related to themselves and their industry. So what questions should business owners answer to position themselves to effectively meet the challenges and changes of the future?

The first thing a business owner needs to do is to get a handle on what it’s like to think five years or even ten years into the future. The best way to get mentally prepared to think about the future is to think about what has happened the last ten years. Not just within your industry but throughout the business world as a whole. This little exercise gives you the opportunity to sense the speed and magnitude of change that allow you to estimate the pace and quality of future changes. Looking back ten years helps you have a more concrete conception of what is a ten year time span.

For example, take a moment and think back to 2004. Toyota’s hybrid Prius had not yet been introduced into the United States market. Before 2003, no single wireless transmission standard had either the range or the speed to handle our growing appetite for connectivity. Facebook came on the scene in 2004, GPS devices showed up in 2005 making getting lost almost impossible.  Then there’s the iPhone in 2007. What are the new advances for this year? Some examples are drones which wants to use for delivery of their orders, new smartphones with built-in security and software that can empower mobile collaboration, and microprocessors configured more like brains than traditional chips which could soon make computers far more astute about what’s going on around them. The concept of the prolific use of social media certainly wasn’t on any company’s radar screens.

Planning CartoonAfter gaining a sense of the past as well as what the future might be, business owners need to focus on several more significant questions.  For example, what is changing in our industry? Is it growing or shrinking? Does our  current strategy maximize present growth areas or does it minimize potential access of future growth areas? Is it possibly time to make a strategic withdrawal from the company’s present segment of the industry to retool the business for participation in some other segment of the industry? Is it time to strategically withdraw from the industry and completely reinvent the company? What are the political, economic, and social forces that will create the world that constitutes the external environment where the business must exist and flourish?

After business owners make decisions concerning the long-term directions of their business, the next focus is on developing the short-term plans that support the long term plans (refer to the Christian Business Reference Architecture).   The key question to ask at this point is this:  what do we need to accomplish and achieve this year so that we can know we’re achieving our long-term plans?

Decisions business owners make concerning long-term direction of their business will set the context for the choices they make concerning the investment of capital and sweat equity in the present.  Those long-term decisions also influence the choices concerning strategic alliances, partnerships, recruiting, training, and retaining the right employees for the business, selecting the right processes, and building foundational infrastructure. Decisions concerning long-term strategic direction for a business and the development of a concrete plan around those long-term strategic direction forms the basis of developing measurable goals that must be implemented to bring a vision or dream into reality.

At a higher level, probably three of the most difficult questions that a business owner needs to ask him-or her-self are as follows:

  • The essence of the first question is what changes need to be made within themselves as an individual.  For example, is there a habit or problem area (such as drinking or lying) that needs to be changed?  An owner’s personal dysfunction will be stamped onto the business.  The only question is how much damage this owner’s dysfunction will create in the business.
  • The essence of the second question concerns business owners’ business support network, such as those individuals who support the business for remuneration but are not part of the business in terms of an employee, partner, or owner. Is this network available at a cost the owner can reasonably absorb?
  • The essence of the third question concerns why the owner is in business in the first place. If you’re motivations are all about the money, chances are you’ll not last long.  For the Christian business owner, it’s a calling from God – a fulfilling of a passion which God has placed inside that individual to create wealth for the Kingdom of God.

Reality is that to sustain a business the owners must not only be focused on draining the swamp but also to be thinking about what to do after the swamp has been drained.