One of the most important things organizations do is set strategic direction. Strategy is our ‘secret sauce’ for success and should provide a business with competitive advantage. However, each person develops strategy differently. As a result, individual differences can sometimes make strategic planning a frustrating process.
One way to minimize frustration and maximize differences is explained through an academic idea called temporal orientation (also called time orientation). Stated simply, we each have a unique, hard-wired way we approach and think about time (or temporality). Each of us view and interpret life through one of the following time orientations;
- The past,
- The present, or,
- The future.
If you have a past orientation, you make plans by assessing what can be learned from history. Those with a present orientation evaluate their current circumstances in order to make decisions. If you have a future orientation, you think and dream about what could be before you make plans. Each of these orientations is valuable for different reasons. Furthermore, each one presents opportunities and limitations.
Similarly, organizational strategic planning processes are also rooted in these three orientations. People who are past oriented tend to use historic data, charts, trend-lines and lessons-learned to inform strategic thinking. Those who are more present oriented gravitate to activities like SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) or SOAR (strengths, opportunities, aspirations, results). Those wired with future orientation use the discipline of strategic foresight (trend identification, scenario development, driving force identification and futurists) as their tools to plan.
So which time orientation is best? You guessed it – they all are! The absence of any one perspective will lead to gaps in your strategy. For example, what occurs if:
- You fail to learn from lessons of the past?
- You forget to leverage the resources/skills of the present?
- You neglect to plan and adapt for the changes of tomorrow?
Experience shows that if this concept is not understood by a team (particularly during strategic planning exercises), an invisible tug-of-war will occur. When this occurs, our different time orientations will become a weakness instead of a strength (as a past argues with a future about the best way to approach things). It is also my experience that the future orientation is most difficult for teams to productively spend time on. Since discussions about the future revolve around ‘what-if’s’ and uncertainty, most organizations unknowingly rely on past and present styles because they feel more tangible. While past and present styles can develop good strategy, they will often produce results which focuses on yesterday’s problems.
Strong strategic planning processes need to intentionally involve all three of these perspectives. Effective leaders learn from the past, leverage the present and prepare for the future.
Dr. Jeff Suderman is a futurist, consultant, and professor who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Contact him today to find out how he can help enhance your strategic planning processes – firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Peg Thoms & David Greenberger (1995). The relationship between leadership and time orientation. The journal of management inquiry (4:3).