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Your Strategic Plan Needs to See the Future…but How?

Welcome to the present moment, where today is yesterday’s tomorrow. Is the day going exactly the way expected it to go when the day began?

Think back to the first time you got the classic interview question “where do you see yourself 5/10/20 years from now?” Are you exactly where you told the interviewer that you would be?

Unless your other car really is a Tardis, odds are that your vision of the future at any given time is about as clear to you as an eye chart is to Mr. Magoo. And judging from the output of many self-proclaimed “futurists,” you are about as likely to get prescient information from their predictions as you are from a pack of tarot cards and a $5 palm reading. Yet foresight is critical to effective strategic planning. So what’s an executive to do?

As Northwestern University professor Robert Wolcott suggests, the key is not to try to figure out the one right answer of what the future holds, but rather to consider a set of plausible possibilities. Some are more naturally gifted at this than others, but this is an exercise that that all of us can do, whether we’ve had prior experience as a fortune-teller or not.

In fact, doing these exercises with strategic planning teams is critical. Don’t just rely on some outside expert to tell you what the future holds. Besides the fact that they are likely to be wrong, involving the planning team will have two more benefits. First, they will be able to bring insights to the process to which no outside expert can be privy. Second, as Wolcott points out, it builds buy-in among the people who will be responsible for executing the strategy into that future being predicted.

The strategic plan that emerges will not be a carved-into-stone-tablets-one-and-only-way-of-doing-things, but one that can adapt to changing circumstances, with a means of assessing and measuring those circumstances as they emerge. It’s a plan that can respond effectively to inevitable adversity. After all, as Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Two tools that I recommend to my clients are the Pre-Mortem and the Delphi process. The Pre-Mortem identifies where things can go wrong with the execution in advance, so when inevitable difficulties arise, the team is prepared. The Delphi process incorporates a variety of perspectives about the future to identify the plausible possibilities, establish priorities, and prepare contingencies. And of course, wrapping up with a good After Action Review to consistently learn as an organization is a must.

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