Think ahead: How to set a long-term strategy

Influencer Renata Tellers looks out of the Sampa Sky, a reinforced glass box that protrudes beyond the building and allows to see not only the horizon, but also the ground below your feet, in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil, August 3, 2021. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli//File Photo

NEW YORK, Dec 14 (Reuters) - In the past year and a half of a global health crisis, most of us have just been focused on getting to the next day.

But as important as short-term survival strategies may be, we need to balance that out with a healthy dose of long-term thinking.

That is the advice of speaker and author Dorie Clark, whose new book "The Long Game" aims to reframe our thinking habits. She sat down with Reuters to talk about why corporate America – and individuals – should always be thinking about what's coming five or 10 years down the road.

Q: Why did you feel this book needed to be written?

A: Anyone looking at the business landscape knows the pressures of quarterly earnings and how that drives companies to poor decisions. So many executives are conscious of share price, and are incentivized based on it.

Short-term thinking is a natural outgrowth of that, but often they are not the right decisions for the long term.

The same is true in our own lives. It is simple human nature to be wired for instant gratification, so we have to consciously override that all the time.

Q: How did the COVID crisis affect your premise?

A: When COVID struck, short-term thinking was all we could do. And it certainly has a place – we needed to be agile, and respond and pivot as needed.

But it's also true that we can't always be in short-term mode. This is the moment to put our stake in the ground, and make an effort to reclaim long-term thinking.

Q: Can you give an example of how long-term thinking can lead to breakthroughs?

A: Jeff Bezos has said that their (Amazon's (AMZN.O)) secret to success was that they were willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, while most companies invest with a three-year horizon.

Because of that, they could pursue large, ambitious projects that might not show a profit for a number of years.

At first, those projects might look like losers. But when you're willing to persist in the period before you are showing results, that is what enables you to build something lasting.

Q: Most people feel like they do not have the time for long-term strategic thinking. What would you say to them?

A: It makes sense to feel that way. But one of the key tenets here is to make small, sustainable efforts that compound, in the same way that stock market returns compound.

There is a well-known saying that we overestimate what we can do in a day, but underestimate what we can do in a year. That's exponentially true if we are talking about a long-term time horizon of 10 years or more.

Q: How do we create that space in our lives, to plan for 10 or 20 years down the road?

A: However much you want to do it, it's not going to happen if you don't make the mental space and bandwidth to fully engage. It's not necessarily about setting aside huge swaths of time, but creating just enough space so that you're not running around like a chicken with your head cut off.

There's a famous strategy at Google (GOOGL.O) called '20% time,' where employees are invited to spend 20% of their days on discretionary experimental projects, outside of the usual scope of their work. I would argue that all of us should adopt that strategy for ourselves.

Be vigilant in prioritizing it, and consistently carve out time for it, and that adds up. Even if it turns out to be a bust, it's not the end of the world. But put in enough time and effort, and maybe it could turn into something great.

Q: For people who do not know where to start, what would you say?

A: If you're not used to strategic thinking in your own lives, because you spend so much time in heads-down mode, you may not even have a sense of where you want to go.

I like to advise people to lower the bar and be gentle with themselves. You don't have to know the answers to life's big existential questions.

What I suggest as a simple alternative is, 'What do I find interesting?' That's a lot easier to answer.

Look out into the horizon, see where that interest is for you, and go deeper into that. That's how you learn more about yourself and gather the data to figure out where you want to go.

Editing by Lauren Young and Rosalba O'Brien

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