Embracing Change in Long-Term Thinking

Organizations work around deadlines: What do we need to do right now? By 3pm today? This quarter? Lost in this approach, however, is a long-term view. To keep eyes on the far horizon, make sure your organization embraces what science shows most people don’t: that the future brings change. Plan on that, and your organization has a better-than-average chance of surviving the storms to come.


To future-focus yourself and your organization by changing your perspectives on the inevitability of future change.

What is Embracing Change in Long-Term Thinking?

Studies show individuals repeatedly underestimate how much the future will bring change (more on this later) – and the same is true for organizations. A 2019 survey of over 600 executives found two-thirds reported increased pressure over the past five years to boost profits. Yet the same survey said the pressure came from their own boards! And as the Harvard Business Review reports, McKinsey estimates that 75% of the US market is held by investors looking for stable, long-term value, not short-term growth. In short, the push to constantly eclipse last quarter’s earnings is self-imposed, driven by too much focus on the present. But what happens when profits don’t come? Is your company planning for the inevitable? Successful organizations avoid the trap of thinking that today’s circumstance’s will still be there tomorrow. Embedding long-term thinking in your corporate identity by using visualization exercises to identify what needs to change now for a better future is one way to keep your company afloat.

How does Embracing Change in Long-Term Thinking improve employee engagement and culture?

Long-term thinking is a way to look after the health of your organization – and your employees – years in advance. Instead of focusing too much on unsustainable increases in profit, it puts the stability of the company as the number-one priority. Otherwise, you are at risk of going bust – or, on a smaller scale, sticking to outmoded workflows just because “it’s how we’ve always done it,” even though better options are available. Demonstrating future-focused thinking is not about jumping on the latest flashy tech but about reviewing how things are done and whether they can be done better. When employees see their company plans for change and reacting to it, rather than becoming set in its ways, they feel allied to an organization they can trust.

What are the benefits?

By accounting for the inevitability of change in corporate decision-making, you make future-proofing a transparent part of your organization. This allows you to be flexible and to have better luck achieving your long-term vision.

How do you conduct Embracing Change in Long-Term Thinking in the workplace? “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” Usually attributed (somewhat inaccurately) to Bill Gates – ex-Microsoft CEO and philanthropist, recently re-installed as the planet’s richest person – this maxim speaks to how bad we are at forecasting, and preparing for, future change. To avoid your organization getting stuck in the short term, make a habit of forward-focused planning. Encourage colleagues to think about two possible solutions to workplace dilemmas – what’s best for now and what’s best for the long-term – and support the latter whenever possible. And encourage internal discussion about what changes now could lead to a more stable future.


Achieve Stability By Embracing Change

First, it’s impossible to start planning for the future properly without internalizing an important message about how people think about the future.

In a significant paper called “The End of History Illusion,” psychologists in Science magazine in 2013 wrote people at any age were likely to identify greater change in their personalities between their present selves versus ten years earlier, but they were unlikely to predict they would change a comparable amount in the coming ten years. The researchers found that people regarded the present as “a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.” Further, this illusion of having “arrived” was found to restrict short-term decision-making. As a result, people are very poor at planning for – or even accepting the reality of – future change.

So what to do? Well, there’s good news – future-focused thinking is a habit we can learn. In an interview, Daniel Gilbert, one of the authors of the study, says that “long-term thinking is like a muscle: the more you use it, the more natural it becomes.” So to ingrain a forward-thinking attitude in your organization, the best step is not any particular one-time switch but rather to start adding a new dimension to your planning. Strive to get away from daily, weekly, monthly benchmarks sometimes and built in discussions during which colleagues are allowed to think bigger.

For instance, start by considering your company in ten years. You’re not a fortune teller, so it’s not necessarily about predicting what the next big thing will be and getting ahead of that. Rather, it’s about, first, internalizing the notion that the future will bring change. Second, it’s about understanding that you can influence that change. In other words, you can use thoughts of the future to reflect on what you need to fix now.

Sometimes we put up with problems that we only think are temporary because we think they are temporary. As a result, they become permanent. Break this by jumping forward in your mind and see what “temporary” problems may still be around if you don’t work to change them now.

Lastly, draw inspiration from the fact that stability by necessity requires steady, consistent progress, not big sudden gains. Danny Hillis, long-term guru, likes to relate the following story: “Amazon’s very first shareholder report said something like, ‘Our quarterly earnings aren’t going to mean anything … We’re going to lose money for a while. That doesn’t really matter, because we still have this sense of mission.’ Jeff rereads that original shareholder letter to the shareholders every year. It’s a long?term picture of what they’re trying to do.”

You can find that letter attached to the back of the latest share-holder letter even today – it’s worth a read for an example of a forward-planning vision from a huge corporate success story.

Reference Material

Why CEOs Should Push Back Against Short-Termism

How to Practice Long-Term Thinking in a Distracted World

Amazon - 2018 Letter to Shareholders

Last updated