People often worry about the future and make decisions that may not have any impact for months or years. While it’s important to consider the future, doing so might cause you to lose focus about the present. This is particularly true when running a business, and especially true in today’s challenging economic times. So, let me offer five reasons why you should spend most of your time focusing on today, not tomorrow. Here we go:
1. Companies change. If you haven’t read Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston – buy it. The book tells the stories of some of the best known companies of the last several decades. There are some important common elements to those stories: the first ideas aren’t always the best and be prepared to change your plans. Many of the companies profiled in the book are today respected for their sharp focus on their business. But when you read about those companies’ early days, it’s apparent that some were forced to change their business models in significant ways before finding something that worked. Those stories underscore why it’s important to focus on the now – thinking too far ahead might be a waste of time when you get there.
Here’s further proof that companies change: their brands evolve to keep up with the times.
2. Industries change. Time and time again companies have ignored major changes sweeping across their industries. Case in point: Getty Images initially was highly critical of iStockphoto but later acquired iStockphoto for $50 million. In a June 2006 article in WIRED – The Rise of Crowdsourcing – Jeff Howe discussed how smart companies in different industries were tapping the talents of crowds around the world. It took some time for companies to understand that entire industries in which they were operating were changing. Smart companies leveraged these changes and have embraced news ways to conduct business. Example: Dell’s IdeaStorm.
Those who become too fixated with long range planning often lose focus about today and fail to appreciate that their industries are changing. Regaining that focus tomorrow may be too late.
3. Situations change. While some visible Internet personalities are writing about how they’ve been oracles all along – predicting for a long time the monumental collapse of the global economy – the reality is that very few people predicted the dire situation facing companies today. And that’s fundamentally the truth about markets. Markets are fare more unpredictable than they are predictable.
Unfortunately, unforeseen events often cause people to react in predictable ways. Witness the almost cult-like shedding of costs by tech companies around the country. Companies are shedding costs by laying off staff and terminating vendors as if they’re following some magic formula which requires 10% reductions. Now for some companies – this is a necessity. There’s too much fat, too little business, and poor planning. For others, it’s a reactionary response that may ultimately hurt them.
I am not suggesting that companies should ignore the economy and should not shed costs. But the economic downturn hasn’t changed the fundamental truth about what it takes to build a successful business.
By losing focus on today and following the pack, many companies think that they are focusing on today when they prepare for a harsher economic climate. They are wrong. In a recent post – The Beauty of Pirate Ships – Chris Brogan nicely captured the strategy employed by pirates. Chris Brogan pointed out that companies should not blindly get lean for the sake of getting lean.
“In the coming months, there are strategies one can follow to try and survive. Some companies are hunkering down, cutting their spending, tightening their expenditures. Some are laying off, getting lean. Others are slashing their projects and sticking with what they’d been doing for the next year, shifting their efforts into preserving what they have instead of pushing forward.
I think that’s the worst plan in the world. Forget the ship. Don’t preserve the ship. Go after the prize. Take on the far more dangerous-but-rewarding stance of seeking the treasure. If you’re a company, set the targets and launch your ships. If you’re one of the pirates, look for the reward, not the larger story.”
4. You will change. Many books have been written about change. Most of those books focus on people leading change in their organizations. But there’s an important element often missing in those books. People change, contrary to what our parents told us. And when people change, their strategies, goals, and priorities change too. Trying to predict how you may change is futile. Trying to anticipate what your priorities will be 12 monts from now is equally futile.
I am not suggesting that long-term planning is worthless. Long term planning is perfectly appropriate for some companies, for certain activities. But long-term planning fundamentally ignores change, even though you believe that you are planning for change.
5. Tomorrow will be too late. If we stopped to think about our daily activities, we’d be shocked to find out how much time we spend reacting and responding, rather than innovating. With the absolutely ridiculous amount of email most people get today, it’s a surprise anyone is able to get something done during the day. In fact, many of us are stuck in a perpetual cycle of reacting and responding – not innovating. Seth Godin wrote a nice post about this last week, called Reacting, Responding & Initiating.
Successful companies (and people) break out of that cycle and manage to innovate by focusing on the now. Many others – including Yahoo and Microsoft, for example – continue to be stuck in a cycle that’s filled with reaction and response, but little innovation.
Incidentally, focusing on the now allows you to focus on parts of your business that don’t change. Here’s what Jason Fried of 37signals had to say about this in a recent interview.
“The best advice I’ve ever gotten in business is actually Jeff Besos who is … our only investor in our company. He said, you should focus on the things that don’t change in your business, which I think is a really interesting way of looking at it. Think about the things that people are going to want today and ten years from now. That’s what you should be investing in.
So in Amazon’s case it would be like, you know, fast shipping or free shipping, great selection, good return policies, good prices. Those are the things people are gonna want today and ten years from now. In our business it’s things like speed and simplicity. I don’t think people are going to wake up in 2018 and say, “God, I wish software was harder to use”. You know, o “I wish this was slower.” So speed, simplicity, ease of use, clarity, you know thing like that are the things we can invest in. That stuff’s going to kind of be timeless in a way.
So that’s what’s interesting to us. It’s not the next big thing that may or may not happen, because that thing that’s big will fade out maybe and something else will happen. But just staying true to these basic principles of good product, good service, focusing on the things that are gonna matter today and ten years from now. Those are the things that we’re interested in doing.”
The full video interview with Jason Fried is below.
There’s little doubt that the economic downturn today presents huge challanges. But this is not the first time that companies have faced such challenges, and it won’t be the last. The important lesson we can learn from companies that have persevered through such challenges: don’t be a lemming. Focus on the now – while your competitors scramble and worry about their future.
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