5 05 2011

Make sure you properly define short, medium and long-term before starting detailed planning

Often planning cycles are adopted by chance rather than by reason. More frequently still, timeframes are confused thereby undermining strategy’s ability to deliver. As with all things strategic, you need to personalise the short, medium and long-term of your planning.

Or more correctly, the long, medium and short-term.

Having properly defined your Vision (see The Vision Thing), and assuming you have been specific enough, you will know what your ‘long term’ is. The Vision needs to be set far enough into the future to allow the necessary planning and action but not so far as to seem removed from current reality. This is usually 8 to 12 years from the starting point.

Regular readers will know I like sporting analogies and in sport, a common sense approach would suggest a 12 year Vision. Why? Because that allows us to tie planning to common cycles whether they be the Olympic common to many sports or the World Cup cycle common to others.

This is not set in stone and you will establish your own ideal for your business or industry sector however, continuing the sporting analogy, it is  convenient to medium term planning to tie it to a single cycle of four years and attach strategy to a time frame everyone in sport is familiar with and will understand.

Following this principle the short-term would then be one year which accommodates tactical planning; the far more specific details required to  deliver success.

This is one model and, while a logical model for sport, you should remain aware that your strategy is personal to your organisation and if an  alternative timeframe fits better, that should be the one you adopt.

Having established your long-term Vision you will be able to break it into the steps which will be required in order to turn Vision into reality and to identify the order in which they will need to happen.

To have a 12 year strategy would be foolhardy, not least because planning to such a long-term would not be possible given the uncertainty such a time period would bring. Cast your mind back 12 years and consider all the things that would have impacted on such a plan that could not have been predicted and you will understand the folly.

Hence, the medium term will also become the length of your strategies (aka planning cycles). In the above example each strategy would cover a four-year period (or cycle), each building on the last while leading to the next as part of a planned process to achieve the success the vision has defined.

There will be tasks that will need to completed, objectives to hit which cannot happen until others have been successfully completed/achieved. For example, again continuing the sporting analogy, the Vision might describe growth to a set number of participants (Z) which will logically mean achieving X by year four and Y by year eight.  Each business and industry will have its own objectives to apply.

This process will be made easier by identifying and defining milestones between the outset of your strategy and its completion (the achieving or surpassing of the Vision). In the same way that good Vision should excite and inspire, it is wise to have at least some of your milestones do the same.

Milestones are a great way of making seemingly enormous tasks appear achievable; best explained by the old music hall joke; “how do you eat an elephant?”

The answer – “one bite at a time!”

Returning to the use of sporting analogies, this is how John Naybor, the 1976 Olympic 100m backstroke gold medallist, went about it:

“In 1972 Mark Spitz won seven Gold medals, breaking seven world records.  I was at home watching him and I said to myself, “wouldn’t it be nice to be able to win a Gold medal, to be able to be a world champion in Olympic competition”.  So right then I had this dream of being an Olympic champion, it became a goal.

That dream to goal transition is the biggest thing I learned prior to Olympic competition – how important it is to set a goal. Certainly, motivation is important. A lot of kids have motivation, “I’d love to be great…”.

My personal best in the 100 backstroke was 59.5. Roland Matthes winning the same event for the second consecutive Olympics (1972) went 56.3. I extrapolated his, you know, three Olympic  performances and I figured in 1976, 55.5 would be the order of the day. That’s what I figured I’d have to do. So I’m four seconds off the shortest backstroke event on the Olympic programme. It’s the equivalent of dropping four seconds in the 400m dash.

It’s a substantial chunk. But because it’s a goal now I can decisively figure out how I can attack that.  I have four years to do it in. I’m watching TV in 1972. I’ve got four years to train. So it’s only one second a year. That’s still a substantial chunk. Swimmers train ten or eleven months a year so it’s about a tenth of a second a month, giving time off for missed workouts. And you figure we train six days a week so it’s only about 1/300th of a second a day. We train from six to eight in the morning and four to six at night, so it’s really only about 1/1200th of a second every hour.

Do you know how short a 1200th of a second is? Look at my hand and blink when I click my fingers. OK, from the time your eyelids started to close to the time they touched 5/1200ths of a second elapsed. For me to stand on a pool deck and say “during the next 60 minutes I’m going to improve that much”, that’s a believable dream. I can believe in myself. I can’t believe that I’m going to drop four seconds by the next Olympics, but I can believe I can get that much faster. Couldn’t you? Sure.

So all of a sudden I’m moving”.

Be aware that the relevant time spans of short, medium and long-term are not fixed, the right one for you and your business or industry sector might not fit the business next door. As I frequently remind clients, strategy is personal, there should be no place for templates and one size fits all mind sets.

A few years ago I was working with a business on developing strategy. All previous strategy had been limited to 12 month ‘long’ term views. I asked why?

The answer was that the manager who had led on strategy was a former teacher and he had been taught that long-term is a school year, medium term is a school term and short-term is a school week.

Working as a teacher that may well be true but it had been a recipe for serious underperformance in that business!

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, 2011

Twitter @cowanglobal



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