Can You See the Plane?
One sunny, 72-degree January afternoon (the kind found only in San Diego), I spent an hour at Bird Rock Coffee Roasters in Little Italy sipping a yirgacheffe pourover while watching the planes on approach to the airport. Across the street from me stood an eight-foot-tall plastic chicken with a keen eye.
The chicken faced due east. It was oriented almost exactly along the flight path of the approaching planes. I’m sure its orientation was accidental, yet he was perfectly positioned to see each plane approach.
Despite the various sizes and power of the planes, I could only hear them about two to three seconds before they came roaring into view a few hundred feet above my head. After that, they sunk rapidly below the horizon with my sole reward consisting of a brief glimpse of the fuselage. Yet, despite the power and noise of their jet wash, the only two bipeds on the street looking consistently, at each plane, were me and the chicken. And, the only one of us able to swivel their head was me.
I’ve been thinking about that chicken quite a bit, recently, when I speak with leaders regarding their strategy. All too often, organizations mimic the chicken when forming their strategic plans.
Typically, strategy development looks something like this: Once every year or two, a group of well-intentioned people stand together, scan the horizon and hope that they’re facing the right direction to catch a glimpse of an approaching plane. Sometimes they get lucky and face the right way, at the right time. Yet even then, if they’re not paying close attention, they miss the chance to look up and glimpse the plane.
“Tomorrow” is what most of us are attempting to divine when we look for the plane. Unlike the chicken, though, all too often we’re not looking in the right direction – glancing repeatedly backward or side-to-side instead of forward. Even rarer are the lucky few that glimpse the plane, then swivel and follow it to its destination.
If I could provide you with the cheat codes to unlock your strategy instead of further torturing you with this chicken story, I would. Unfortunately, effective strategic planning is specific to every organization. Generic advice will have a minimum impact, at best. To be truly effective, strategic planning – much like good advice – requires context, data, expertise and, most importantly, perspective.
If you remember nothing else from my friend, the chicken, recall that the key to successful strategic planning is to not only face the correct direction, but to look forward and up, instead of backwards or side to side… and to remember to swivel. It’s quite easy to confuse past precedent with future prediction and environmental scanning or market analysis with impartial perspective. The future is always tomorrow and it’s always in front of us… but only if we’re facing forward and can swivel. Now get out there and try to glimpse that airplane. Because the chicken has already seen it.