Leaders who use vision to navigate the future often employ strategy to help them steer their organizations more effectively toward its destination. To lead with vision, however, requires a fine balance among what matters today, what we anticipate will matter tomorrow, and how we can create the future through inspired, collective effort. There are three horizons that leaders should understand to ensure that vision unfolds as one would hope.

Strategy emanates from a world-view whose horizons extend beyond day-to-day actions, not only further into the organization’s future, but wider into its periphery and deeper into its past.

This article helps leaders better understand these horizons, how the realm of strategy differs from that of planning or operations, and how to get the horizons right and lead with vision effectively. I also offer up three high impact practices to help guide visionary leadership.

Every organization can be understood as a set of nested and interrelated individuals, teams, departments, and so forth. Each of these is characterized by boundaries of one kind or another and all organizational boundaries, internal and external, are permeable to some degree, many substantially so. The image below shows an organization with permeable boundaries that exchanges energy, resources, and information with its environment.

Organizations have all sorts of relationships that extend beyond their boundaries, woven like a web in the environment. Even the tightest, most secretive of companies have employees who move into and out of their organizations on a frequent basis, and who each have interests, actions, and lives outside of the company. In fact, you might say these flows, the exchanges of energy between the organization and its environment, keeps the organization alive and gives it its distinctive form and characteristics. The image below shows the organization and its internal and external environments over time.

Strategic perspective is developed with a clear understanding of how an organization is nested within its environment and the nature of the energy flows across the many boundaries.

Horizon one — activity through time. To get your horizons right, start by embracing the fact that organizations travel through time. While we all move forever forward into the future, we also remain affected by the gravitational pull of our past. Effecting change in the future — because of emerging trends, environmental conditions, or other strategic elements — means adjusting your organization’s direction and magnitude over time. The further out in time your vision takes you, the greater the possibility that your organization will be different from what it is today. The image below shows the organization moving through time and into the future; not necessarily a linear path.

This view helps us understand the time dimension, how it creates horizons, and the influence the past has on strategy. While strategy’s primary horizon is looking forward, it’s also true that effective strategic perspective with respect to an organization’s future emanates from a strong understanding of the organization’s past. If your company’s current magnitude and direction defines is potential moving forward, assessing that magnitude and direction accurately demands a rich understanding of your company history. In other words, your future capacity is dependent on the past that brought you here. Two horizons exist, one into the past and another into the future.

Every organization moves inexorably forward into the future and in this relentless movement, organizations are acted upon and act upon the world.

They put products and services into the market, they develop new ideas, pay salaries, secure supplies, train employees, etc. Even organizations that might choose to do nothing for whatever reason, in that very choice itself, act. This set of actions or activity an organization’s operations — the total set of stuff that organizations do. The image below shows organizational activity, or operations, to the mix.

The horizon of organizational activity then is primarily concerned with the present, with the here and now; its boundaries rarely extend beyond or outside of these present concerns. Operations can, to a certain extent, reach into the near-term future — the supply invoice that takes a few business days to transact, the new product line that launches early next week — but not significantly so. Organizational activity is first and foremost about doing. Organizational activity exists in the present moment, and at best it may be tactical as opposed to strategic.

Organizational activity has a short horizon in time while it’s aperture may be either wide or narrow relative to its present environments. When activity projects far enough into the future, we step into the realm of planning.

Horizon two — planning, tomorrow and beyond. Planning’s horizon extends well beyond those of ordinary organizational activity. Planning’s purpose is the preparation of future organizational activity. Planning keeps an organization on its intended track, forecasting and securing the resources necessary for desired outputs and productivity rates, preparing the landscape ahead for intended delivery of goods and programs, positioning workforce capacity for projected skill and experience requirements, and so on. Consequently, where an organization’s march through time is concerned, the future is a more meaningful term to the planner than simply tomorrow. Tomorrow certainly matters, but so too does next week, next month, next year, and, where long-term planning is concerned, the next few years or even decades. The image below shows the extended scope and boundaries of organizational planning.

Planning’s scope also broadens much further into an organization’s environmental than activity. Relevant environmental influences consistently matter to the planner. For example, weather conditions or logistical constraints affect an organization’s future activity and planning works to mitigate these effects. Further ahead, relevant environmental conditions that will change or may even appear to be changing also fall within planning’s purview. A new competitor seeking to acquire market share, a required resource that may be facing shortage conditions next season, or an opportunity to partner with another company on a new product, are three examples of the sorts of environmental issues that lie well within planning’s scope and beyond the realm of organizational activity.

Horizon three — strategy. Strategy is often misunderstood as something that is merely important or something that has to do with planning for the future. While these may both be true, the horizons of strategy are more expansive. Strategy’s aperture is wide and pushes even further than that of planning. The nature of planning’s domain is about identifying the probable and preparing organizational activity for actual execution paths. The planning realm is guided by resource availability, even anticipated resource availability. Planning’s purpose is to move future ambiguities toward clarity.

Strategy, however, lives and thrives in ambiguity.

Strategy pushes the organization beyond current capabilities and available resources. Strategy is about identifying multiple pathways into the future and discerning, from the standpoint of building long-term organizational advantage, which pathways offer better likelihoods of desired outcomes than others. I like Jeff Bauer’s insight about using forecasts to illuminate the future, which he laid out in Upgrading Leadership’s Crystal Ball — forecasts, like clouds of probabilities of future possibilities, are the strategist’s handiest tool, especially as uncertainty increases. The image below shows the horizons and boundaries of organizational strategy relative to those of planning and activity.

Strategy’s horizons extend well beyond the realms of organizational planning and organizational activity. Effective strategy should exist in continuing tension with planning perspectives. As strategy pushes the horizon lines further forward and back, so too does the aperture of strategy’s scope widen compared to planning’s. While planning’s scope tends to narrow the further forward in time one ventures, strategy’s scope widens well into the periphery.

In strategy’s domain, the environmental influences of the periphery of an organization become more meaningful and worthy of attention the further into the future the strategist looks.

All of these observations on strategy’s horizons, and why they are necessarily different than those of planning and activity, have implications on how organizations move forward with visionary leadership. Strategy sits above and beyond the realm of planning to inform and guide the planning process, just as planning does for operations. The visionary leader looks forward but much further and more comfortably so than the planner. Unlike planning, strategy’s cast is not limited to the future, but importantly also includes the past. Strategy’s purview extends out to the limits of an organization’s conceivable future horizon.

The image below shows the full model for organizational horizons. The organization, immersed in activity and operations, moves through time. All the while, the organization is impacted by the changing environment and in turn acts on the environment, creating changes and impacts as energy flows across the organizational/ environmental boundaries. Multiple horizons exist across time, both into the short-term and long-term pasts as well as into the present, short-term, and long-term futures. To be truly strategic, the organization must remain aware over time, on the level of activity, on the level of planning, and on the level of strategy. Organizations that are the most adaptable to changing conditions in their environments show a tight coupling of the processes of strategy, planning, and operations.

Get your horizons right — try these high impact practices. I advocate that strategy plays an ever-present role in every organization that hopes to last the year if not the next decade. Leaders who expect to move their organizations toward a new kind of reality in the future need to understand the processes behind strategy, planning, and activity, the differences in their three horizons, then work to ensure they are continually informing each other.

With a clear understanding of the strategy, planning, and operations horizons, the visionary leader can focus on continually building their organization’s capabilities using these high impact practices.

The first impact practice, Insight to Action, recognizes that processing new data and information keeps the organization poised to adapt to its changing environment. I recommend visionary leaders employ information insight tools such as the activity, environmental, historical, and futures inventories. These four inventories yield insight from new information, thus allowing the organization to successfully adapt to and manage change. Starting with analysis (defined as the ability to track, store, manipulate, make sense of, and employ robust, complex data from the past, present, and future to support actions and decisions) leaders can create a rich information environment to better couple the outcomes of activity and operations with planned future efforts. Then they can employ strategic thinking to understand the various future-oriented time horizons in which strategy can unfold, to continually scan the environment for signals of change and new ideas, and to adapt to these changes in the external environment. With these inventories in full operation, visionary leaders are empowered with potent perspective to strengthening and transforming their organizations.

The second impact practice, Collective Organizational Effort, reflects the need for collaboration across the organization that motivates teams, thus creating the necessary synergy to manage change and navigate toward future vision. Leading is the broad organizational ability to generate results by inspiring vision, motivating others, and managing people and relationships. Collective effort eschews silos while encouraging collaboration across teams, jobs, and other boundaries. It seeks balanced communication using multiple channels to elevate shared knowledge across the organization. It favors the ability to get things done with a focus on what matters most while at the same time responding to changing conditions that arise. Finally, collective effort has a bias toward organizational learning. Collective organizational effort can be observed by how deeply and broadly it’s members engage, how clearly and effectively they communicate, and how well this engagement and communication drives execution.

The third impact practice, Transform and Strengthen, highlights the importance of leveraging resources within an organization and the need for innovative design to elevate the processes, products, services, and experiences it provides. Leaders must ensure their organizations continually innovate and align and realign their resources. Innovating, most concisely defined as “ideas to valuable action” is the ability to generate new ideas, put them into action, and create value through the efforts. Resourcing is the capacity to manage and leverage resources to help achieve strategic goals by freeing up and reallocating existing resources, generating new funds, and directing resources to fund priorities. I suggest you work to obtain and maintain a strategic mindset in your organization, one that reaches beyond planning, well beyond organizational activity, in an ongoing interplay of planning, capacity building, and execution.

Real, long-term change, innovation, and impact emerge simultaneously from your horizons into the future, into the unknown, and from the past. By tightly coupling activity, planning, and strategy along your organization’s horizons, the visionary leader can work to bring insight to action, to align collective effort, and transform and strengthen their organizations all toward success.

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