Throw Out Your Plans for 2013. Business Is a Journey.

Throw Out Your Plans for 2013. Business Is a Journey.

Budget season is upon us.  As companies start mapping out plans and projections for 2013 and beyond, it’s time to step back and ask: Can we really, seriously, engineer a five-year path of linear growth?

We shouldn’t even have to ask. Cycles don’t move in 10 years, 5 years, or even one year anymore. Some cycles are shorter than a quarter! As leaders, we need to open ourselves up to another message entirely. Say a strategy or planning lead came to you with the following report: “We’re confident we’re going to create real value and generate great impact in our marketplaces in the next decade. That said, how exactly we will achieve this is not fully clear right now, but one thing is clear: there will be plenty of ups and downs.” Instead of firing or punishing her, we should celebrate her, because the age of planning – as we came to know in the late 20th century business model – is finished.

What business needs now is to journey, to embark on a curvilinear path that eschews quarterly reports and gives room to explore new initiatives. To embrace the up-and-down nature of markets by journeying, understanding that while the ultimate goals are higher and further, the path will rise and fall, zig and zag.

To show you what I mean, let me take you back to 1962. President John F. Kennedy led the United States on a journey when he kicked the space race between the US and the Soviet Union into high gear with a speech in Houston. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things,” he proclaimed, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…”

President Kennedy’s announcement did more than lay down the gauntlet to our country’s most formidable adversary. Our country did not possess the know-how or technology to put a human on the moon at the time, yet Kennedy staked his reputation, his presidency and the U.S.’ reputation on pursuing this grand commitment. He also accepted the significant ups and downs that the country would experience along the way.

And there were ups and downs. Kennedy delivered the speech just after several failed unmanned missions to the moon. He chose the goal of a manned moon mission because with any lesser target, advisors told him, the Russians would likely win the race, given their technological capabilities. Before Neil Armstrong took “one giant leap for mankind,” the U.S. overcame initial public resistance to the moonshot, tragically lost JFK to assassination, and witnessed a failed Soviet manned moon mission that resulted in astronaut death. But NASA stayed the course with the Apollo missions, and met Kennedy’s challenge by 1969.

The President had inspired the country to journey into a new era that leveraged modern technologies and changed the course of history, resulting in one of humanity’s most ambitious achievements. The effort produced numerous innovations – solar energy, infrared ear thermometers, de-icing systems for planes, safer tires, more nutritious baby food, among dozens of others – that have improved millions of lives in the past five decades.

In the world of business, these sweeping journeys do not exist. Why? Because business remains trapped in a linear mindset that does not compute with the up-and-down, interconnected, extremely volatile way the world now operates. And that’s both a shame and fundamental flaw.

The business world is messy and complex yet chief executives continue to lead, structure and manage companies as if business is neat and tidy…and somehow separate from life. Markets are prone to unpredictable human behavior, violent economic swings, powerful natural disasters, sudden commodity shortages and crippling cyber outages. The need for a new lens to view (and lead and structure and operate and work in) business is evident in almost every corner of the company and in all of its relationships with employees, customers, investors, and communities in which it operates. Profits feel increasingly difficult to eke out despite access to new markets. Risk management has proven inadequate. Unemployment in many developed countries remains high despite the hundreds of thousands of high-skilled open positions that companies struggle to fill. Employees who should feel grateful for their jobs in this economy instead feel increasingly disengaged and bereft of meaningful careers.

Yet we continue to operate as if we can magically superimpose control, accurate long-range forecasts, accurate budget projections, ever-increasing performance arrows and other products of strictly linear thinking on those complex and interwoven conditions beyond our four walls and that, somehow, it will all work out just as planned. Since this short-termism is no longer possible, we must set long-range goals. We must create the environment that nurtures — and inspires — moonshots by freeing everyone up from so much of how things are scrutinized, planned, controlled, and compensated.

If it sounds as if I am ranting or campaigning, it should. My campaign platform would be concise: “It’s the Journey, people.” If brought to life in tangible ways, it would resonate with the masses of disengaged employees, frustrated managers and executives, and confounded stakeholders.

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