Future Vision Vs. Environmental Scanning First

Newsletter 67

The CEOs were long-time friends, but at this moment they were both red in the face, animated, and adamant about their points of view. “I tell you, in strategic planning you must create your future vision first,” said one. If you do your environmental scanning first, then you’ll always be limited by your assessment of the current situation. You won’t be able to create a truly unique and inspiring vision for your organization—you’ll just make conservative incremental changes to your current plan. Nobody ever achieved anything great with that approach!”

“I disagree strongly,” said the other CEO. “How the heck are you realistically going to achieve a future vision if you don’t do your environmental scanning first? You need to know where you are right now and what the trends are in the environment around you. If you don’t, it would be like starting on a trip to New York without knowing where you’re starting from and what the weather conditions might be along the way. You’d be hopelessly lost and possibly in grave danger from the get go. There’s a fine line, you know, between a future vision and a hallucination!”

What do you think? Which should come first in the strategic planning process, your future vision or your environmental scanning? There are strategic planning gurus who come down on both sides of this issue. What gets the best results?

My position is that environmental scanning comes first. “There’s a fine line between a future vision and a hallucination,” comes from Randy Rollinson, who is one of the aforementioned gurus. I agree with him. My experience has been that visioning the future of any organization (a team, a department, a division, a company) is best done with some good intelligence in hand about:

  1. what the external environmental trends (opportunities and threats) look like within the planning horizon (1 year, 3 years, 5 years, etc.), and
  2. what the current core competencies of the organization (strengths and weaknesses) are.

This being said, I also agree with the first CEO in the opening vignette that is critical to guard against the tendency to limit your future visioning only to conservative incremental changes to the current vision. When you do this, you’re actually not doing strategic planning, but rather tactical execution improvements to the existing plan. For example, even though you may not possess the core competencies or the right people to execute a particularly exciting future vision at present, you may be able to acquire them at a reasonable cost and risk.

To avoid the potential mistake of considering only conservative incremental change in your strategic planning, here are a few exercises you can use. The first is simply to list the limitations of the current vision, such as geography, products and services, distribution channels, etc. Then brainstorm potential actions to mover past these barriers or limitations.

Another exercise is to have the members of your planning team create their own individual versions of the future vision before bringing the team together to discuss the vision. In this way you capitalize on individual thinking and creativity first.

Then, in the group brainstorming session that follows, capitalize on team thinking and creativity by sticking to the standard brainstorming guidelines. These include not allowing any initial evaluation of ideas and allowing people to build on the ideas of others. Finally, give some kind of recognition or prizes for the top three most outrageous and creative ideas presented. This will loosen people up, alleviate their fear of making mistakes, and get their creative juices flowing. You can switch into analytical mode later and begin evaluating the ideas to get to a focused future vision.

Another technique to foster creative future visioning is to have your planning team imagine a future edition of a well respected publication with a headline and lead story about the success of your ideal organization of the future. For example, the headline could be in the Wall Street Journal and could read, “Customers Love Paying Full Price at Zappos!” The article could then go into the details of how Zappos has differentiated itself so well through extraordinary customer service that its customers are delighted to pay full retail price for shoes and clothing.

TECHNIQUES

Technique #1: To avoid a future vision that could qualify as a pie-in-the-sky “hallucination,” do your future environmental scanning before deciding on your vision.

Technique #2: Structure your strategic planning process to include exercises that will help you avoid considering only conservative incremental changes to your current vision.

Technique #3: Gather solid intelligence on external future trends as well as your internal competencies (or potential competencies) so you can create a compelling and differentiating future vision for your organization.

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