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  • Writer's pictureBob McCulloch

The Nature of the Strategic Horizon

One of the first steps in strategy development is to establish the time horizon. It could be three to five years, twenty years, or even six months. Any of these time frames can be “strategic.”

The long game

When I was working with the newly-appointed Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario on the strategic direction for the office, I was initially taken aback when he declared the strategic horizon was 13 years out. After a short while, it clearly made sense to me as he described a few massive initiatives that needed to be undertaken to flip the organization 180° from being an expenses-focused body to one whose mission was to ensure that “everyone in the Province who has a right to vote, can.” The vision had to define “What has to be in place for that statement to be fully true?”

The short game

At the other end of the scale, I facilitated a session several years ago for a company that manufactured office equipment. The initial horizon for the strategy was to be five years. Within about an hour, the assembled team came to realize that if they didn’t do something drastic in the near term, they wouldn’t have a future beyond a year! The strategic horizon quickly became six months, and the focus for the session became, “What does it look like in six months when we’re ‘stable’?” and “What do we need to do to create that scenario?”

Remember that just because something has a near-term horizon, it doesn’t mean it’s not strategic. In the same breath, something that has a long term horizon may not necessarily be strategic, e.g., buying a rail car is a fifty-year decision and is clearly an operational rather than strategic choice.

Choose wisely

Make sure you consciously and thoughtfully pick a suitable horizon for your definition of the “preferred future.” With strategy development, we can take a “Goldilocks approach”: not too little time, nor too much. We take the “just right” amount to ensure take we can take the steps that we need to in order to meet our definition of success. That in itself can be a substantial discussion point.

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