Planning for the future

2010

"Most managers live in the past." You might think that statement may sound ridiculous. What about all the planning, the five-year strategies, the spending on research and development, the new initiatives in cyberspace, the ambitious acquisitions, and so on?

Despite such activity, managers are inevitably and deeply affected by what they already have, by their 'legacy' business and 'legacy' systems. In fact, they are so deeply affected that they resist even unavoidable change.

Managers are required to undertake a delicate and difficult exercise achieving the best balance and combination of past, present and future. The past is no more all bad than the future is likely to be all good. In fact, the organisation's inheritance is liable to include some of its greatest, richest strengths.

Consequently, one of the prime duties of managements is to protect the past, to sustain and exploit the inherited assets. But it's also incumbent on them to protect the future.

In the vast majority of cases, companies that triumphed in the past get left behind as newcomers usurp the future. This is rarely because the old-comers have tried and failed in the new businesses and technologies. Mostly, they have ignored the trends, or have responded with too little action, too late.

The present is the only time in which anybody can live. Bring the future into the present by forming concrete programmes in which everybody participates – in full knowledge of the long-term goals that you want to achieve as you invent the future.

If you really want to face the future, rather than the past, he says, set unreasonable targets. Any target acts as a ceiling on people's ambitions. Set one that they think impossible, and they may surprise themselves – and you.

Second, take a wide view of what constitutes your market. Managers will move into extended markets with more energy and enthusiasm if they are creating, not just a business, but a cause. This means pursuing an overall objective that your people can understand and with which they can identify.

Be open to new ideas. Venture capitalists make plenty of mistakes, but failing to listen to innovative propositions is not among them. Few are chosen, but many are called – and listened to. Give everybody a chance to have their ideas considered.

Top managers cannot expect others and the company to change unless they are prepared to change themselves – and to do whatever that takes.

The necessity for this personal transformation cannot be evaded. Top managers can no longer manage their own executive lives as they do the business, living in and on the past, and turning their backs on the future.

The natural urge will always be to stick with the familiar, where the risks are known and the upside is limited. Venture into the unfamiliar and the risks are unquantifiable – but the potential is huge.

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About The Author

Robert Heller
Robert Heller

Robert Heller, who died aged 80 in August 2012, was Britain's most renowned and best-selling author on business management. Author of more than 50 books, he was the founding editor of Management Today and the Global Future Forum. About his latest title, The Fusion Manager, Sir John Harvey-Jones wrote: "The future lies with the thinking manager, and the thinking manager must read this book".