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Running Forward While Looking Backwards is Risky Business

A “True North” strategy is the key to leading in a world of rapid change and increasing complexity.


Change in our world is happening at a speed and intensity that we've never seen before. It's non-stop and has a force that we’ve never before seen. But our organizational coping mechanisms are deeply rooted in military principles from 200 years ago. Back when information was expensive and unreliable, change happened slowly, and it took decades, even centuries, for power and rank dynamics to shift. Static, long-term planning was viable and the best option to provide continuity and control for those leading their organizations or their troops.

How does our old-world thinking impact strategic planning and leadership?

As leaders, our knowledge, expertise, and entire mindset have been shaped by a world, and pace of change, that no longer exists. Today, information is readily available, inexpensive, and reliable (despite the new emergence of “alternative facts”) and there is nothing linear about the pace of change we are experiencing. It’s happening simultaneously, in all aspects of life, creating ripple effects that collide with each other and create a level of complexity never experienced before. Yet, by relying on the same old approach to strategy, we commit the business equivalent of using trench warfare techniques to fight a blitzkrieg.

So whether we are making long-term strategic decisions for our companies or wrestling personally with how to invest for retirement, many of us are reeling as we try to make sense - and smart decisions using an old dynamic around planning. We are looking to the past for evidence of future trends. But, as Yogi Berra said, "The future ain’t what it used to be."

The old ways of leading, investing, and planning don't equip us for the realities we are just beginning to understand. We're in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (what some call Industry 4.0)—the Internet Revolution. Revolutions are radical disruptions in our society that only get bigger over time, affecting all of our social, political, economic, and environmental systems.

Looking Backwards while Thinking Forward

Intellectually, we know the old rules are inadequate in this new reality and they’re counter-productive. The strategic plan we carefully craft is quickly shelved, collecting dust while we get pulled into fire-fighting and reactionary responses to the new and often unforeseen realities.

Peter Drucker said it best: “Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window.”

I miss Peter Drucker.

The key is to reorient yourself toward the front window with as much light as you can muster. That requires what I call developing a "True North" perspective—a steering strategy vs a strategic plan that stays the course no matter what unpredictable and tsunami-like level of change we experience. Clear, forward-thinking strategic direction keeps an organization afloat and plowing through the waters of change, rather than implementing plans that were made in a reality that no longer exists. It's the key to survival and enables individuals and organizations to thrive.

In today's surreal reality, I work with clients to define strategic direction in this way:

  • Find “True North.” Strategically, this is the ideal—where we would be if we were 100% effective in what we do.
  • Set the course recognizing that is a biased and limited view of where we are today. (It’s unavoidably distorted and limited, because today's reality is almost incomprehensibly complex and fast-moving.)
  • Take one step forward.
  • Reorient to “True North” in the context of a now shifted view of reality. (Still unavoidably distorted and limited, but different than what it was yesterday.)
  • Wash.
  • Rinse.
  • Repeat. 

It sounds so easy. Set your sights on a course, move forward, course-correct, move forward. But changeable winds, whirlpools, and tidal forces make navigation a constant challenge.

In an upcoming blog, I'll offer more insight on finding True North despite our inevitable distorted views of reality. In the meantime, batten down the hatches...


About the author:

Luisa Perticucci.jpg



Luisa Perticucci  

Managing Director | Waldron 

Luisa’s  experience, insight, and foresight have enabled her to guide social entrepreneurs, CEOs, and leaders of governments and international development agencies (NGOs) in achieving the potential in themselves and their organizations. She thinks and works globally, across cultures, borders, and industries—recognizing that every transformative result is driven by great minds, passionate engagement, and empowered people.