Navigating the Constant Tension Between Long and Short-Term Thinking

 In Strategic Agility

Every one of us knows well the constant tug-of-war between long and short-term thinking. You want to lose weight, but you also deeply desire that double chocolate cake. You want to put a new roof on your house, but you also have your heart set on a restorative summer vacation.

Long-term big thinking is the foundation of all major accomplishments. From the interstate highway system to the automobile manufacturing plants that populated it, such accomplishments are the result of decision makers’ choice to invest—sometimes painfully–now to create impact across many decades. But they also are the result of countless individuals working one day at a time.

So—as you already know—the trick is to excel at both short as well as long-term thinking, each in its place. But that is harder to do than it sounds. Here are a few practices I’ve found helpful:

Incent short-term behaviors that have long-term benefits. Companies that match employees’ non-profit donations and/or contributions to retirement plans take this approach. Matching motivates behaviors that increase the long-term welfare of employees and communities, while increasing employee loyalty. Wearables that give you a badge or accolade when you hit your “steps” goal are another example.

Work on both fronts at once: You can, for example, make your existing operations one or two percent more efficient each year at the same time you plan for a factory that will be twice as efficient… when it goes online three years from now.

Even tiny progress adds up: One pushup a day is better than none, and in my experience if I can manage to stop and do one, I’ll probably do five or ten more.

Think about your kids’ grandkids: In addition to making your bed every day or any other shining example of short-term excellence, consider how you might have a positive impact beyond the normal time horizon most of us consider. What can you accomplish that will even outlive your kids?

And last but not least…

Never waste a crisis: The past year has tremendously accelerated a number of business innovations. When all the rules suddenly change, it often becomes easier to take actions with long-term benefits. For example, if you know performance will be down this current year, it might be a good time to absorb long-term costs you have been hesitant to incur.

What ways have you found to strike the right balance?

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