Have you been thinking?

How much of your time is devoted to thinking about and planning for the future? Whatever your answer might be, it probably isn’t enough. Let’s change that.

You have three basic responsibilities to the business: Deliver amazing results today. Deliver even better results tomorrow and prepare for a future that will be filled with uncertainty and change. Where did you invest your time in each of those areas yesterday? How about last week, last month, or last quarter?

Focusing most of your attention on today and tomorrow is not unusual. Mark Elwood, president of Pace Productivity, Inc., reported that only 2 percent of managers in his studies report any time spent on long-range planning that affects the future.

On the other hand, your success as a leader depends on the ability of you and your team to anticipate and respond to change as it comes at you. That is more difficult than it needs to be unless you spend time thinking about the future.

The IT leaders with whom I work and speak tell me that the problem isn’t a lack of desire to think about the future. In fact, it can be exhilarating to contemplate all the areas in which technology could help the business succeed. It can also be equally rewarding to focus your attention on the areas that will help you improve in the short-term.

It’s a matter of time. They—like you—are invited to meeting after meeting. If they aren’t attending someone else’s meeting, they are hosting their own to ensure that projects are on track and KPI’s are being met. Then there are the disruptions … lots and lots of disruptions. Some of them are legitimate such as the network going down, but many should have never appeared on your radar in the first place.

Sound familiar? If so, it is time stretch your brain a little. You and your business partners will be more successful when you do. As Oliver Wendell Holmes noted, “One's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”

How much time thinking?

The Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness reports that the average leader spends 25 minutes per day focused on strategizing for future success. That rounds up to just over 2 hours per week. My experience says that isn’t enough.

Warren Buffet reportedly devotes up to 80 percent of his day reading and thinking. That is wonderful if you can do it, but you most likely don’t have Mr. Buffet’s ability to control your calendar.

The most effective executives I’ve observed commit 25 to 40 percent of their time to future-focused thinking and planning. Mid-level managers invest between 5 to 10 percent of their time thinking and planning about what’s next for their teams.

The questions you should be asking

The quality of the answers we receive in life often correlate to the quality of the questions we ask. Here are five questions to stretch your brain for the future:

  1. What else should we be doing today to better serve our internal and external customers? Where are the opportunities to help them succeed that we are not seeing or addressing? What are we doing or not doing that creates barriers to their success?
  2. What’s next? What opportunities and threats lurk over the horizon that could help us flourish or cause us to be disrupted? If we were starting this business over, what would we be considering or doing that we aren’t doing today?
  3. Are we optimized and prepared for the future? Do you have the talent you need? How about your resources and long-term strategy? Is your organizational structure and DNA nimble enough to allow you to quickly respond?
  4. What should we or could we do differently or not at all? Running faster and further is extremely difficult when you are already running as fast and far as you can.
  5. How do we keep ourselves open to address unplanned challenges and unseen opportunities? Much of what commands your attention never appears in the strategic plan. The best leaders and organizations quickly assess changes in the environment and pivot to address them.

Where’s the time for that?

You might be thinking, “I have so much on my plate. There are more tasks and projects than time.”

I understand. If finding time to think about the future was easy, companies and teams would rarely be caught off guard. It is a matter of how you think about the thinking. Peter Drucker, writing in the The Effective Executive, said, “Effective executives, in my observation, do not start with their tasks. They start with their time.”

Your calendar tells the truth about your priorities. So let’s look at your time with an eye toward giving you more space to focus on the future. How much of your time over the past month was devoted to activities and tasks that only you could or should do? Likewise, how much time was spent on activities are tasks that someone else on your team should have or could have taken from you?

If you are doing things that others should be able to do but couldn’t, make sure that the person that is most appropriate for the job is trained. You should also look at any barriers that might be getting in the way such as lack of resources, unclear expectations, or lack of cooperation that causes issues to be escalated to you.

If your calendar is filled with activities and tasks that others can (the ability is there) and should take on (it is others’ responsibility), the usual answer is more effective delegation and empowerment from you. The other option is that you need to hold those who are not performing accountable.

Leaders who reduce and eventually eliminate activities, tasks, and decisions that could or should be done by others often find that they gain 2 to 3 hours per week that can be focused on the future. It’s not 25 percent of your time, but it is a start.

Thirty-five years ago, the hospital where I worked purchased its first computer. That is not a typo. It was one computer that sat in a special room, and you had to schedule time on it. Part of my job was to encourage people to abandon their IBM Selectric typewriters long enough to give it a try.

Truthfully, I wasn’t thinking much about the future either. I had 8 other departments to oversee as an administrator. I got the responsibility because one of my college courses included an overview of computer programming. If I had been more forward thinking, we would have been considerably more effective utilizing what was at the time a leap forward in our capabilities.

I see similarities between my early experience and today. The opportunities to help your company position itself for continued success are just as endless and unfamiliar. That only happens, however, when you create the time to get out of the day-to-day and think about the future.

I look forward to your comments and suggestions. Let’s think together and out loud.

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