The long range un-plan

Most tech businesses have this religious ritual known simply as the long range plan. In it, they try to take the wisdom found in their combined product/service roadmaps – usually extending two, maybe three years into the future – and synthesize a view of the way things should or could be in 5 to 10 years. The idea is to project things such as areas of likely investment or acquisition, research requirements, changes in the competitive landscape, and scenarios for growth (or contraction, part of being prepared) to help with facility and staff sizing requirements.

One encounter with the long range plan sticks out in my mind. “Hey, Bob Galvin is coming by tomorrow. Can we put together a presentation?” I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Galvin, former CEO of Motorola, twice during his tenure. This occasion in the late 1990s would be the second and last time. He had come to Arizona for a celebration for Iridium. Just as we were finishing introductions, he held up a hand, reached for the pager on his belt, smiled and said he had just just received one of the first messages sent over the Iridium network. After that moment, we had his undivided attention.

Our team pulled out every piece of static show-and-tell hardware we could find, along with slides from our roadmaps and long range plan presentation. Mr. Galvin sat very quietly, emitting a few glances of piqued interest and a couple words of encouragement here and there, but not much else. For embedded guys, our stuff was pretty cool, but in the real world we were pedestrian compared to Iridium. Nonetheless, we took our best shot, hoping not to be just a flash somewhere in the sky.

courtesy Jon Teus (Aranzadi Science Society, Spain)

At the end of the presentation, our GM asked: “So, Bob, what do you think?” Mr. Galvin was a lot like a grandfather – he saw his role in later years as supportive, not adversarial or unduly critical. He had other guys on his staff who would tear into details and tear apart weaknesses, but that wasn’t his style. Because of that, his answer was about to take us all off guard.

I’m paraphrasing, I wish I had his exact words recorded, but the direction was clear. “Thanks for showing off your technology today. It is impressive, and it is obvious there has been a lot of hard work and progress, and you all are passionate about what you are doing. I have just one question: what do you want this business to be in 30 years?”

Our GM attempted the pre-recorded response, basically: “Pffffft, it is really hard to say where tech will be in 5 years. We’ll track our customer needs and respond accordingly.” That was the point Mr. Galvin shifted forward in his chair for the first time since he’d walked in, and now he had our undivided attention.

He told us how he Akio Morita, then chairman of Sony, would windsurf and discuss technology. Together, they had laid the landscape for 20th century electronics breakthroughs, including miniaturization and leaps in quality methodology. He said the Japanese would routinely look forward 50 to 100 years in planning, to try to anticipate the breakthroughs for the next century. His message to us was you can’t think just incrementally, and while it is important to serve customers they won’t show you the next big thing unless they are applying very long range thinking, too.

He asked again: “What do you want this business to be in 30 years?”

That day, we left the room with a “we’ll have to think about that,” realizing we had absolutely no frame of reference to do so. As it turned out, perhaps Sony and Motorola hadn’t thought of all the possibilities. On the day Mr. Galvin passed away:

I’ve always been bad with the 5 year career planning question. I’ve never been even close to right, not once. Jobs I thought wouldn’t last 5 years went almost 15. Jobs I thought had long term potential moved in other directions without me. I looked up today and realized I’ve been in Phoenix 19 years now, which doesn’t seem possible. The plan has changed, is still changing.

In an era of accelerating change on a myriad of fronts, today we’re getting questions like:

I’m a bad one to ask. I can’t imagine using Facebook for 25 minutes, at least under a non-brand individual persona. But the point is well taken – will the things people can’t live without and the companies we take for granted right now be around long term? I’m sure something filling the role of Facebook today will exist, but maybe not the Facebook brand. Will Google? Will Microsoft? Will HP? Will Intel? Will Sony? I don’t know. 25 to 30 years is a long time.

The point: long range technology plans will almost certainly be wrong; don’t get too attached. Purpose and vision have a chance to help people and companies create the future, and are what people will hang on to.

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  • J. Paul Falbo

    Looking ahead opens up the world of possibilities. Journeys are started with one step. Take along someone who has an open and inquisitive mind.

  • Don: in the book “Black Swan”, the author discusses the finance managers who jetted around the world to put together a five-year plan. Three months later, all of them were laid off due to the economic downturn (which they didn’t forecast). And yet, I’m sure their replacements are formulating another five-year plan.
    Planning beyond two product generations is generally futile due to unforeseen developments.