Business, much like living, is a balancing act between the present and the future. Focusing only on living in the moment can lead to a very bleak future. Conversely, a total focus on the future leads to poor results today. Finding the right balance is therefore essential to a good life and to good business results.
In business it is very easy to develop a total focus on today and today’s problems. In a previous job, I was faced with many problems daily. Because these “fires” were so pressing, they could easily consume all of my time. Of course, if I dealt solely with these urgent business issues, no time would have been spent shaping the future. In fact the work that was future-focused had much more value to the business, but fires could be all-consuming. It can be a case of focus on the urgent and a lack of attention on the important process of getting ready for the future.
So how does one plan for the future, while keeping the business moving ahead day-to-day? I have three recommendations to make this happen.
Dedicate meaningful time at least once every other year to long-range planning.
When I say dedicate, I mean it in the strictest sense of the word. Gather a multi-functional team together and spend some time working on nothing but building a long-range plan. Doing this off-site is worth the time and expense as it helps shield people from getting pulled into fighting today’s fires. Shutting off all external communication (phone, e-mail, text messages, etc.) is also important. Do this at least every other year to keep up with changing times. (If you have the capacity, do it yearly.) Often outside resources, such as a consultant, can help lead this process more effectively, since they are not inhibited by what has been done before and can bring a fresh perspective.
Start broad and then focus in to create a vision of the future.
The goal here is to provide a snapshot of the world and how it will be different three to five years from now. It should start very broadly and then be drilled down to your business. External sources can be extremely helpful in opening up your thinking. A perfect starting place for this work is the recently completed Future of Home Improvement Study from The Home Improvement Research Institute (HIRI). This study identifies five major trends that will be reshaping the industry. The study identifies trends like “consumers in control,” what created that trend and how it is already being manifested. This understanding will help you build a vision of the future customer for your business.
Not a member of an organization like HIRI? Assign someone in your company to read the current literature on trends and forecasts of the future and have them report back to the group. Regardless of the source of the insights, make sure you paint a detailed picture that will serve as your guide through the rest of the process.
Build your plans to keep your business relevant and growing in this new world.
With the picture of the future as your guide, start asking questions such as: “What can we do to meet that need?” “How can we be more relevant to that customer?” “What products or services do we have today that will become obsolete?” “What new ones will be needed in the future?” “What are the things we need to be doing now to be ready for this new world?” Now, start building your business plans to get your company ready. This way you will be with the trends, not playing catch-up later.
Will your vision of the future and your business plans be perfect? The answer to that is clearly no. Nonetheless you will be much better off having made steps toward the future as mid-course corrections can adjust for inaccuracies. The one thing we do know for sure is that the future will come, and those that are prepared will be the successful companies.