Jun 19, 2022 5 min read

Strategic Agility - Balancing long term focus with short term actions

Balancing long term focus with short term actions

Leadership, management, and organizations are riddled with paradoxes. The more we recognize them the more we can be effective in operating amidst them rather than being frustrated or worse being limited by them.

One such paradox is that of balancing the present and future strategic timeframes in planning and decision making.


Leaders have to take care of what’s in front of them and at the same time position the business for future success.

And often these are conflicting agendas.

The second specific task of managers is to harmonize in every decision and action the requirements of the immediate and long-range future. Managers cannot sacrifice either without endangering the enterprise.

They must, so to speak, keep their noses to the grindstone while lifting their eyes to the hills - which is quite an acrobatic feat. Or, to vary the metaphor, they can neither afford to say: “We will cross this bridge when we come to it,” nor “It’s the next hundred years that count.”

They not only have to prepare for crossing distant bridges - they have to build them long before they get there. And if a manager does not take care of the next hundred days, there will be no next hundred years; indeed, there may not even be a next five years.

... A manager lives and acts in two time dimensions, and is responsible for the performance of the whole enterprise and of his or her component.

- Peter Drucker in People and Performance

What is profitable in the short term might not position us well in the long term and vice versa. But every leader has to learn to manage the present with the future.

Establishing the right timeframe — the proper present

In his classic Managing for Results, Peter Drucker gives one such example. While the example is a little dated, the challenges are the same as they were 75 years ago.

He talks about establishing the proper present for your business. This could be the next month, the next year, or the next decade.

It is the timeframe within which you are thinking when setting objectives and goals as part of your strategy, which in turn drives your actions in the present.

One important element in the ideal-business design is establishment of the time period which is the proper “present” for any given business; it varies greatly.

The best illustrations are the contrasting fortunes of two companies in the aircraft industry. Curtiss Wright and the Martin Company.

Curtiss Wright, in the late forties, was the stronger company: the second-largest aircraft- engine builder in the United States, solidly established as a leader in both civilian and military engines, with a heavy backlog of orders and great financial resources.

Martin by contrast was an ailing airframe builder without a product of distinction, deeply in debt, and altogether, it seemed, an aging “war baby” without a future.

But a new management at Martin came up with a present of eight to ten years as the time needed to develop a new technology in large-scale systems work. Research of shorter duration made not much sense and could not pay off. This also meant that the business had to be something that did not exist in 1950: a space business rather than an improved aircraft business.

Curtiss Wright without an analysis of this kind stayed with the time period of World War II, when the emphasis was on production rather than on new design. Its present was one to two years.

Although it spent perhaps more money than any other aircraft company on research and development, Curtiss Wright had all but disappeared as a business a decade later.

Its definition of the present made management reject any project that did not promise a pay-off within twenty-four months. As a result not one of its many research projects produced anything.

The Martin Company, by contrast, established a leading and successful space systems business with a relatively modest research outlay.

He goes on to address the challenges of how to navigate this paradox of balancing long strategy with demands in the short term.

[D]etermining the time-span that is the present of a company or industry largely determines what kind of efforts will be made. Efforts that promise results in less time are likely to be a waste not only of time, but of resources and money.

To set too short a time-span and ban all efforts exceeding this period (as Curtiss Wright did) is to condemn a company to sterility.

Perhaps the best way to go about designing the ideal business is to start with a broad sketch and to correct and refine as one goes along. Otherwise one may still be rewriting, polishing, and refining when the design has already become obsolete.


It is easy for us to tackle what is in front of us, and equally hard to keep the long-term in focus. One logic is that if we take care of the present it should take care of the future.

In entire organizations, the markets make this worse by rewarding short-term behavior because of Wall Street’s focus on quarterly results.

The future as context

However the future is the context for our actions in the present. Changing our timeframe actively changes the version of our future that we are pursuing.

Long-range planning does not—and cannot—aim at the elimination of risks and uncertainties. That is not given to mortal man. The one thing he can try is to find, and occasionally to create, the right risk and to exploit uncertainty.

The purpose of the work on making the future is not to decide what should be done tomorrow, but what should be done today to have a tomorrow.

-Peter Drucker in Managing for Results

Leaders need to be adept at navigating this dynamic based on what the situation entails. Some initiatives might require thinking 3 quarters ahead and others might require thinking 3 years or even 3 decades.

It's easy for leaders to forget the malleability of time. A linear, mechanical interpretation of time can unknowingly limit our options and the potential avenues we explore.

On the other hand, realizing that time is malleable, can open up opportunities previously unseen or unviable.

The future is not going to be made tomorrow; it is being made today, and largely by the decisions and actions taken with respect to the tasks of today.

Conversely, what is being done to bring about the future directly affects the present. The tasks overlap.

They require one unified strategy. Otherwise, they cannot really get done at all.

- Peter Drucker in Managing for Results

A default timeframe is already in play

Whether we are aware of it or not, every decision we make has an already defined “proper present” that is influencing our decision making and in turn our actions.

The trick is to be aware of this dynamic and adjust it based on what the situation requires. There is no one right answer.

Uncovering assumed timeframes

How have you defined the “proper present” for your business or project? What is the “proper present” for your life?

Whatever decision or project you are currently tackling, what is the assumed timeframe or “proper present”? Often this is invisible because it’s taken for granted.

Have you examined it closely? Is it the correct one for this particular project?

Uncovering the assumed timeframe and testing it at the extremes can yield surprising answers.

Drucker gives an additional question to consider:

To make the future happen one has to be willing to do something new. One has to be willing to ask: What do we really want to see happen that is quite different from today?

One has to be willing to say: “This is the right thing to happen as the future of the business. We will work on making it happen.”

Further Reading

In previous posts I have talked about the elasticity of time, how the future influences the present actions, and how the timeframe of goals can influence our actions in the present. Leadership requires a different understanding of time.

Zooming in and out is a key skillset. It is also a key aspect of goal setting. Check out the different dimensions of setting goals.


Liked this article? You will dig The Managerial Mind on Mondays newsletter. It's free and every edition covers essential frameworks on leadership, careers, and organizations in bite sized form.

References

  1. People and Performance, The Best of Peter Drucker on Management by Peter Drucker.
  2. Managing for Results by Peter Drucker.





Sheril Mathews
After a 20 year stint in various technical/management/leadership/ positions in the wilds of corporate America I started LS to help leaders & high performers level up their game.
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