What is this “long run” thing people keep harping about?

Do you, like most, have a bias for short-term results?

I love Scott Adams and Dilbert – he perfectly encapsulates some of the incredible silliness of corporate work and life – and like all great humor, contains enough truth to sting. The other day, I was especially struck by the last panel in a running joke about Wally being selected to be mentored by the CEO. As it happens, Wally, being Wally, has been mentored for a week and has not improved at all. The CEO, worried that this would look bad (he can’t win, he either appears to hire crappy people or can’t mentor anyone successfully) is in discussion with the HR Director (Catbert) about this, deciding that to save face, he will need to promote Wally. To which Catbert says “That might be a bad idea in the long run”. In the final panel, the CEO says:

“What is this ‘long run” thing people keep harping about?”

Ouch. But it’s true.

We are in the future strategic planning and innovation business. It’s our job to help our clients look forward – either to the future of their business, their industry, or their customers. It’s our job to take our client’s brain trust of employees and turn them into a powerful tool of profitability, generating process improvements, new products and services, new ways of doing business, new markets to get into, or all the above.

When we engage with an organization, one of our first acts is to generate a cultural scan to glean the company’s readiness for future and innovative thinking. You would think that those in the C-Suite would be the most forward-thinking and that the role of the CEO would be to take the long view, understand the long run, and use that understanding to guide the company into its preferred future. However, that’s not the case in many cases.

The CEO, in fact, the entire C-Suite, is so focused on near-term deliverables, the pure running of the business, that they rarely look up. A long-term strategic plan may go out a year, sometimes only 6 months.

What kind of strategic plan is that? Why do we only look so far?

It could be several reasons – maybe we are so concerned about the speed of change that we feel we can’t look out that far. Maybe we are so concerned that some unforeseen event will occur, some Black Swan will just happen and wreck our plans.

Or maybe if we are focused on the day-to-day profitability of the work in front of us now, we figure that the future will eventually take care of itself. That’s wrong thinking. Sure, some focus on the day-to-day is important, but great execution of today’s product and service keeps the lights on and keeps everyone, from employees to shareholders, happy, part of the C-Suite’s job, and the CEOs job specifically (if you ask us) is to spend some time looking at the “long-run” and in fact, spend more time with their head in the future than in the present.

Is your leadership biased toward short-term results? You are not alone.

However, you are probably also then not one of the leading companies in your space – are you Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple? Does your CEO, like Elon Musk, invent future-focused solutions for the problems of today? Does your executive team provide you with a vision – and not just a number or revenue-focused vision, but an aspirational vision – of your future company? Can your CEO describe where you will be in 5 years? In 10 years?

If the answer is no, and you don’t know where you, your industry, or your customers will be in 5 or 10 years, how will you know if you will still be relevant in that time? You do plan on still being here in 5-10 years, don’t you?

The time is now to develop that vision, to look out for 10 years, and, by leveraging your employees and customers’ creative and inventive minds, develop a true long-run strategy.