Short-termism is killing us!

As the pace of change increases, so too does the need to plan ahead. Yet the reality is that many of us assign far too much importance to short-term tasks rather than long-term priorities.

I recently visited the china clay pit at Wheal Martin in Cornwall and was impressed by the longevity of the industry. Beginning in a highly labour-intensive way with numerous small producers in the 18th Century, growing dramatically through the 19 th Century, consolidating during the 20th century and becoming the highly mechanised and efficient industry that it is today.

Obviously these industrial phases, from discovery and innovation through growth to maturity have been documented for many different industries and are well understood. What is different now is that, whereas this process once took centuries, today it takes place in decades or even years.

For example, I remember the occasion when my own company in the IT industry failed to keep up with the pace of change in the disk manufacturing industry in the 1980's. The result was that at the end of one financial year we ran out of hard disk drives because our quality assurance process was longer then the product life of a disk. By the time we had tested and included them in our product portfolio, we were unable to supply them because they were no longer in production.

Human nature is such that we like certainty and prefer facts to forecasts. At best this is a pressure leading us to be more short-termist in our thinking, at worst it is causes us to focus on the past; last week's sales, last month's expenses, YTD performance. Yet when you think about it, this reaction is ridiculous! Consider this analogy - if you are crawling along in a traffic jam it is perfectly acceptable to simply follow the car in front, yet when the jam clears and you speed up, you need to take more into account; you need to look at the road ahead, read the road signs, look out for people baking four of five vehicles ahead and so on. The faster you move, the further ahead you need to think.

Business is made all the more complicated in that, unlike driving a car, we do not choose the pace of change, it is imposed upon us, making it all the more important that we are constantly reading the signs and looking at the road ahead.

A customer of mine recently told me that they were doing extremely well in a particular market niche, achieving good sales and increasing their market share. Worryingly though, they were unable to tell me why they were being so successful or what their strategy was for continued success. It reminded me of IBM during the 1980's and of M&S or Boots in the 1990's, each of which were so confident that the business model that had served them well in the past would continue to be successful in the future that they failed to notice that the world had changed around them.

For most of us it is easy to dismiss these large-scale examples as being the fault of the Chief Executive, the Board or the senior management team. But the reality is that large-scale failures are usually the culmination of a chain of events that take place over a long period of time and involve a lot of people. Short-termism is a disease that affects most of us.

I recently met with a group of senior managers, all of who complained that the reason they were short-termist was because their diaries were completely full and they had no time for contemplative thinking. When I asked why they didn't simply blank out time for themselves they told me that, because their diaries were all available on-line, the free space would immediately get booked.

"It takes a lot of courage to blank out time in your diary for thinking"

However I suspect that the problem is a little more complex than that. First, I think a lot of people like to be fully booked as it keeps them involved and reaffirms their importance. Second, a lot of people are frightened of having spaces in their diary in case others in the organisation think they are slacking. Finally, turning up for work empty-headed and reactively seeing what the day will bring is a lot easier than thinking ahead, setting out a plan and seeing it through in addition to coping with the daily issues.

In a short-termist environment it takes a lot of courage to blank out time in your diary for thinking, for preparation, for networking, for attending general business conferences, for reading industry publications or newspapers, for wandering around the organisation and having a chat to people in different departments, yet spending time on things such as these is one of the most important things you can do and something the best leaders do naturally.

Spend a few moments thinking about the person or people you most admire for their leadership skills and ask yourself; were they ever so "back-to-back" that they didn't have the time to listen to a good idea or to consider an alternative approach? Did they turn up for meetings unprepared or give the impression that they were "shooting from the hip" rather than working to a plan? Did they ever seem out of control or uncertain as to what to do?

So how do they do it?

The answer is that all good leaders, no matter how senior or in what situation they are playing a leadership role, have one important thing in common - they put first things first.

Saying this is easy and I am sure that most of us feel we are pretty good at prioritising our time and ordering tasks accordingly. But the leadership principle of putting first things first is far more fundamental than this. Whereas good leaders set long-term objectives and give priority to the things that will achieve them, the disease of short-termism results in most people giving priority to the things that are urgent, though not necessarily important.

Urgent matters are usually very visible. They arrive on our desk or in our email, they press us into action and cause us to react. But so often they are unimportant

"Whenever you say 'yes' to one thing, you are automatically saying 'no' to something else"

Important matters, on the other hand, have to do with results. If something is important it is because it contributes to your goals and objectives. The challenge we face however is that the most important matters and the ones that will have the greatest influence on your long-term success are rarely urgent, they are therefore easily set aside and replaced with short-term urgent issues. For example, I am sure you have all attended a personal development course where the room has a few empty seats due to people pulling out at the last minute "because something urgent came up". In other words, they replaced a long-term development objective with a short-term reactive one.

Obviously there are times when being reactive is unavoidable, so the challenge is to become more proactive and to focus more of our time and energy on the objectives that are most important.

The starting point is to begin at the end. Take some time to consider your long-term personal and professional goals such as, "where do I want my business unit to be in 5 years time" or "what job would I like to be doing a decade from now". Having thought through these types goals, start to work backwards considering the steps you could take to maximise your chances of success. In this way you should now be able to identify a number of things you can start to work on today that will have major long-term benefits.

However, rather than trying to tackle everything, I suggest that you single out the one thing that you are not doing today that, if you did, would have the greatest impact on achieving your goals. For example, as the Sales Director of a life insurance company, my biggest breakthrough came when I eventually persuaded the salesforce to stop selling products per se and instead concentrate on building relationships. The net result was that our resellers began to see us as their partner rather than simply a supplier and our product sales rocketed.

The next thing you must do is to start saying "no". This is not easy but I find it helps to remember that whenever you say "yes" to one thing, you are automatically saying "no" to something else - the thing that you now no longer have the time to do. Therefore you should only say "yes" to things that are of greater importance to you in improving your goals.

Another technique for helping you to say no is to ask yourself, "is whatever I am being asked to do going to contribute to a) generating income, b) reducing costs, c) improving customer satisfaction, d) improving the team spirit or staff morale or e) meeting a compliance requirement." If the answer is "no", then why are you doing it?

Now, having set your goals, decided on priorities and freed up some time by saying no to less important tasks, comes the really difficult part. The fact is that being reactive is easy, it doesn't require planning or preparation, you invariably are busy, feel useful and are appreciated by others, and you don't mind interruptions because it is the interruptions that set your priorities.

On the other hand, focusing on long-term priorities is extremely difficult, especially to begin with. It requires great determination and strength, as you will frequently have to defend your corner. However, in time you will find that the number of crises that require urgent attention decrease as you are able to spend more time thinking preventatively and set out a clearer vision of the future.

If you still feel that this is wishful thinking, think again of the people you consider to be leadership role models. Then think about the changes they managed to make in their organisations, institutions or communities and ask yourself whether they achieved this by being short-termist and reactive or by putting first things first and by focusing on their long-term priorities?
About the author
Alistair Schofield is managing director of Extensor Limited and can be contacted at .