As part of developing the taxonomy for our trend hub, I’ve been trying to categorise some of the time scales we think and plan for. For sake of finding a start point to discuss this, I’ve split how we think about time into four simple categories (I appreciate that these will actually feel quite long spans of time to some people, but to get to thinking about the long-term, I think these might work as a starter for ten):
- Short term (1 day-1 month)
- Medium term (1 month – 1 year)
- Medium-long (1 year -5 years)
- Long term (5+ years)
Short term thinking (1 day – 1 month)
The systems we operate in tend to be very good at dealing with the short term. And by the short term, I’m going to define this as a day to a month. This is because the short term is immediate. It is tacit. The reality of gold in your pocket now, trumps the prospect of gold in your pocket in the future in a vast number of cases. What you think about, what you worry about is, generally, what’s real and, to most of us, we can only speculate on what could be real today, tomorrow, perhaps, next week, perhaps next month; we tend not to think about next year as ‘too much can happen by then.’ As people we naturally think in days, weeks, months. We get used to the seasons and these are features we understand and mark off on our annual calendars.
Dealing with things that happen from today, till a month from now, tends to monopolise our focus, especially as it is hard enough to get a full picture of what is happening right now, let alone what could happen tomorrow. Understanding what is happening in the world right now, has long been the remit of intelligence agencies and even they will admit it’s hard enough to fully really know what is happening right now. It is, at best, an estimate with varying degrees of bias and error. As the world continues to grow and there is more and more data available, just trying to get a picture of what is being discussed about you or your brand ‘right now’ is complex enough.
As the image above shows – there is a considerable amount of data constantly generated and instantly accessible. With such a massive amount of potential data – it is only with our capabilities to estimate things. We have to estimate our reputations, our impact, our popularity – we can put scores to these things, which make us feel a bit better as they are a little more quantitative, but they are still estimates. And during our day to day lives, just what is being said about us and what the overall opinion that dominates this ‘logosphere’ or all the currently valid information, that is what we devote most of our energy in responding to. Especially in organisations; we spend most of our time trying to fathom what the situation is ‘today’ that the tomorrow, we plan for is just literally that – it’s tomorrow.
Medium term (1month-1 year)
We generally think in the medium term to plan our lives and up and coming events. We check our calenders and generally think about events or milestones when they are about a month away (again, I’m generalising here; I’m talking about us collectively, not those project managers, event organisers, climate scientists etc who do work on longer time horizons). There are natural reasons why our circadian rhythms and our cycles are daily (we sleep), monthly (female reproductive cycles), quarterly (we used to plan and live by the seasons of the year) and for years – well, these are the bench marks of our life-spans – we measure our progress through life by our birthdays. So, naturally we tend to think on a year by year basis. Perhaps our lives are too short to do other wise!
It’s not just our biological dispositions that favour the medium term. Financially, month by month works, it is a significant way to bench marks sales and profit. Month on month we can see our performance and set our strategies to address ‘year end’ to ensure, that at the end of our annual cycle, we have made a profit. I’ll try and put a number on this, but I’d estimate that around 80-90% of the strategic planning in the UK, is working on a year horizon. Because, for a business, this is where its crunch time – it has made a profit, or it hasn’t. You quickly have a big metric, and lots of smaller metrics to measure your success and progress against.
Medium – Long (1 year -5 years)
Thinking in terms of 1-5 years tends to be less common, both in our lives and in our organizations. In democratically elected governments, such a span of time provides the effective functioning window of a political party in power (which, in reality is probably more like 2.5 years, when you take into account the learning curve post arrival and the election preparation approaching the end of this period).
Other systems of governance have used five year plans to deliver programmes of change. Communist systems, both in Russia and today in China split longer term projects into 5 year programmes. China still does this; probably because it’s a meaningful amount of time to deliver significant technical, social and engineering based projects. China is currently in its 12th five year plan, running from 2011-2015, which currently focuses on ‘sustainable growth, industrial upgrading and the promotion of domestic consumption’.
So, is it a fair assessment to say that around 5 years is the longest amount of time we plan for? 5 years is perhaps, the most significant amount of time that change can be benchmarked. For a child, 5 years sees a newborn, go to toddler, go to infant. Another 5 years, sees SATS preparation, another 5, GCSE’s. With our children, as they age, the milestones we reflect upon can be benchmarked yearly, but are more starkly realized by us as parents every five years. Other events, like the olympics, swing by infrequently enough, for us to witness the cultural changes that have occurred since the last games.
Long term thinking > 5 years
There are some areas where we think longer than five years. Some sectors, such as insurance or risk management need to mitigate against events that occur outside of the timescales that we are most comfortable in thinking in. Hurricanes, floods and earthquakes happen when they happen and, as they are entirely outside our control, insurance companies calculate and cost for the risks of them occurring, sell you a policy and make their profits according to the frequency and scale of these events happening.
Climate scientists also, have to model and predict what’s happening in the weather. To do so, they have to understand highly complex data sets and also be comfortable dealing not only with the short term (will it rain tomorrow?) but also the long term, (when will London be threatened by the Thames flooding?) as a result, organisations like the Met Office Hadley Centre have developed clear ways of both thinking about long term change, developing their ideas and models but also, crucially, communicating these to the public, to make it clear why they think about issues happening over a long term period and why they are relevant to people today.
There are other areas, for example, the defence and security industries both have long term assessment programmes. These mainly focus on threats thatcould occur over the next 10-30 years. The logic being that these areas need to be able to adapt and develop their military, technological but also their people policies to either take advantage of opportunities or mitigate threats. Around the world, a lot of defence and security agencies develop such work; I’m from this sector myself, having worked on the Global Strategic Trends programme for seven years.
What all of these projects have in common is that they’re not really concerned about what’s happening, only about what could happen in the future. And, if you take 5 years as the start point for your long-term planning, then you can free yourself up from the short term issues of the day and think in a slower (and less urgent) manner about processes of change that take longer for us to see and even longer for us to understand.
To conclude then, I’d offer the following definition for long term thinking.
‘Long term planning is any conceptual exercise in planning or analysis that deals with any potential change that could occur in five years time or greater.’
The interesting thing is that outside of the human species, >5 than five years isn’t really that long at all. In geological and evolutionary terms, 5-50 years (the kind of timelines our long term projects tend to stretch to) are a fraction of an eye blink. This is discussed in a really interesting article here on long data. But the challenge comes from defining an effective period of time that is both meaningful for our planning and relevant to our highly volatile and increasingly rapid systems of decision making, which are naturally biased towards the gravity of today. We tend to worry about the tiger that’s there now, not the tiger that could be there in ten years time.