Brandt On Leadership -- Business' Perpetual Golden Year

If only year 3 of every strategic plan ever came true . . .

Of all my years in business, I have to say that my favorite is Year 3. You remember Year 3, don't you? That magical endpoint for every three-year budget and strategic plan you ever presented to the board? In every PowerPoint that memory recalls, Year 3 stands out like a shining city on the hill, a place of beauty, peace and profit toward which we corporate soldiers marched. No matter how bloody the current bottom line, no matter how deep the profit valley we found ourselves lost in, Year 3 was always there just 1,000 short days ahead of us, its golden glow a reassurance to our clueless bosses and our own anxious psyches. I loved Year 3 with a passion. I understood why we had to have Years 1 and 2. Year 1, for example -- laid out on paper as coldly as a body in a morgue -- allowed us to safely outline for senior management what was really happening. We could detail how bad our products were, how tough our competitors fought, how dire our lack of resources remained. We could speak openly about the possibility of failure and bankruptcy, about hard decisions and investments irretrievably lost. We could survive Year 1 because they (we) knew that just a few pages later, Year 3 was waiting for us like a red convertible with a bottle of Jack Daniels on the front seat. Intrigued, our senior execs would start to flip through the pages to get to Year 3. But first -- in a ritual as prescribed as Kabuki Theater -- we made them read through Year 2. If Year 1 was to be the age of misery, Year 2 promised to be the Trials of Job -- a time in which we would work hard, invest heavily, but not see much in the way of results. Why won't we see better results in Year 2? a CEO would occasionally harrumph, much as the parishioners in certain churches shout questions to the preacher. Because, we would say, We won't see the full benefits of this plan until Year 3. Show us Year 3! the board would command, and then -- as if pulling Excalibur itself from a black three-ring binder -- we would produce pro formas describing a heartbreakingly profitable Year 3. They -- we -- could have wept. Which is why I still love Year 3, though it hasn't been easy of late. There are some who now doubt the very existence of Year 3. These skeptics, soulless bean-counters all, cite the fact that Year 3 has never arrived -- not once, not ever, in any plan ever presented in the history of business -- as proof that it doesn't exist. Some have had the gall to suggest that the whole process of strategic planning -- at least the way it's done at major U.S. corporations in three- or five-year increments -- is nothing more than an annual rite of job justification for senior management. They argue that wasting months of management time and centralizing planning among execs who wouldn't know a customer from a hole in the ground can't possibly lead to good decisions. They're right, of course, but what they forget is that the allure of Year 3 -- like the appeal of the Yeti or the Loch Ness Monster -- isn't so much in catching her but in the chance that she might, somewhere, actually exist. We believe in Year 3 not because we expect to get there, but because the thought that the rest of our lives might be a succession of Year 1s is simply too much to bear. Ah, but if we could just get to Year 3.... John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm.

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