Human beings, it turns out, are both good and bad at anticipating the future.
We can accurately predict things that flummoxed people 100 years ago – like where a hurricane will make landfall, or the likelihood of a volcanic eruption. We also can foresee the implications of some of our most pressing strategic decisions. However – and this is a big however – we often have difficulty acting on that knowledge.
We may anticipate the future, but often fail to act on that knowledge.
A good analogy to this occurred to me as I sat down to dinner at a restaurant recently. As I surveyed the menu, my mouth watered at the descriptions of the dishes on the menu. Steaks! Fish! So many things I like to eat, and even some that are healthy for me to eat. Could I have ordered a salad, and felt truly virtuous? Absolutely. Did I? No, I ordered a steak and fries. I could have ordered more healthy vegetables or at least just roasted potatoes, but I did not. I know, objectively, that having French fries is likely to be bad for my health. I know that I may regret the cumulative effect of ordering fries instead of mashed potatoes, sometime in the future. But what I felt, when I ordered them, was that I would enjoy them very much in the very, very near future.
Do we do this in business? Certainly, we do.
First of all, we spend a little less on a computer or a service we purchase, knowing we may regret taking the cheap option later. Secondly, we cut prices, anticipating greater sales, without realizing how much lower margins will be. Third, we do things that make our current profits higher by damaging profitability in the longer term.
It turns out, this is partly the way we are wired.
Humans spent tens of thousands of years living in the wild before civilization made us safer and more comfortable. An early human on the African savanna had to worry about getting enough to eat and about not becoming something for a lion to eat. These primary survival issues rewarded people with quick reflexes who could act in the moment. Strategic thinking about a lion that is about to eat you is not likely to help.
Today, however, we live in a world that is less urgent.
Sure, things seem to be moving faster all the time, because of technology – but very few people are eaten by lions these days. Because we are safer, and live longer, strategic thinking has become more important. Our bodies and our brains, however, are stuck in the ice age. We see “lions” in every competitive threat. We worry about “starvation” when our sales tick downward for a month. Never mind the fact that these threats aren’t nearly so life-threatening. We still respond to them as if they were. The physiological responses we have to imagined stress are every bit as real as if the threats were real.
In our businesses, there is a temptation to respond like an ice age cave man when we anticipate the future.
Kill the mammoth or you will starve, avoid danger or the lion will eat you. And yet, objective analysis of most of these situations often tells us that no, we should be hunting smaller game. And no, there are no lions in our offices.
One of the interesting things psychological research tells us is that we usually have a distorted view of how bad – or good – certain outcomes will be.
We are more scared than we should be of the scary things. We are more eager than we should be for the easy prey. Interestingly, there are many slightly scary things that we find completely unconcerning. This is why people eat French fries and smoke cigarettes. It’s not because we don’t know they are bad for us – it’s just that the badness seems so distant and unlikely. So, we let ourselves be anxious about things that aren’t that bad and, strangely, don’t worry enough about little things that very well may kill us.
In your strategic planning, anticipate the future, but remember that there are no lions.
Certainly, there are threats, and some are scary. Anticipation is a powerful antidote to many threats, though, and we can strategically take steps to mitigate the harm they may cause. Equally important, we need to remember that it may be easy to see the big opportunities – but that means our competitors do, too. We may dine better on a hundred rabbits than we would fighting a rival for half a mammoth. Always, the question in strategic thinking should be “why do we think this way?” and “is there any advantage to thinking differently”?
If you’d like to learn more about strategic thinking and more specifically the importance of anticipation, Simplified Strategic Planning is a great place to start. For great ideas on how to improve the quality of your planning, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Consider holding a one-day workshop on Simplified Strategic Planning.
Dana Baldwin is Senior Strategist with the Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
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