Innovative strategic thinking begins with long-term outcomes. Visualize what you aim to achieve and when.

Few would sign aboard if someone suggested that we set sail in stormy weather without knowing where we were going. To be genuinely enthusiastic about a journey, we must believe that the ship we sail has a desirable destination.

That destination is your ‘Future Picture’ of success—a clear and compelling description of where you intend to “arrive” at a specific point in time.

Design Your Future Picture is the most critical aspect of strategic thinking because all subsequent decisions and actions will be aligned to achieve it.

You may be thinking, “We’re in a challenging environment. Change is rapid and unpredictable. It is hard to know what lies ahead. How can we decide on a desirable destination and an arrival date given so much uncertainty?”

 The speed and unpredictability of change are why you need to design a clear and compelling Future Picture for your organization. It will be a valuable navigational aid, a constant beacon toward which everyone can steer.

Your Future Picture defines only where you are headed and when you are aiming to arrive. It does not include the how-to-get-there details. It allows you to be ‘unyieldingly flexible’ about your destination, but always adaptable in the exact course line you will follow.

How do you Design Your Future Picture?

Think Like an Architect, Not Like a Bricklayer

Bricklayers are specialists who deal with the details of construction that relate to their area of expertise. They focus on the bricks. “What kind of bricks do you want? Where do you want them? When do you want us to lay them?”

Architects think differently. When they design a building, they begin with overall ideas about space and appearance. Their thinking then progresses to more and more specifics until they reach the level of detail needed for construction drawings.

 ‘Thinking Like an Architect’ is essential for fast-cycle strategic thinking because it allows you to avoid information overload. This is the technique that Colonel John Warden’s group used to design the Desert Storm strategy in only 48 hours. In Winning in FastTime®, John explained his reasoning:

The government intelligence agencies had truckloads of information on Iraq, far more than any group could digest quickly. To make matters worse, the situation in the Middle East was fluid, and the available information at any given moment was never complete or fully updated.

So, rather than begin by analyzing all available information, we started by thinking about the high-level outcomes—what we wanted the end state to be.

Once we were clear about our high-level outcomes, we moved down level-by-level into the details. At each level, we identified what information we needed.

The Rule of Three

Your Future Picture must be easy to remember to be a valuable navigational aid for the whole organization. That is why it follows the Rule of Three.

The Rule of Three is ubiquitous. Plays have three acts; stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Three characters are popular—the Three Little Pigs, the Three Wise Men, the Three Musketeers. The U.S. Marines are trained to focus on only three goals at a time. Apple’s co-founder, Steve Jobs, communicated three main ideas in almost every presentation.

So, the Rule of Three is a communicator’s best friend. But why?

Many years ago, scientists at the Bell Telephone Laboratories found that communicating information in clusters of three yields significantly better recall results. That is because we process information through pattern recognition. Three is the smallest number to create a pattern. This simplicity makes it the ideal framework for communicating your Future Picture.

 Tips for Designing Your Future Picture

To create compelling descriptions of your destination, push the possibility envelope with these four thinking techniques:

  • Begin with the end in mind. You have far more options to explore when you think creatively back from the future than you have thinking forward from the present.
  • Take the status quo off the table. Suspend your assumptions about what you think is feasible today. Imagine what could be feasible tomorrow.
  • Review possibilities optimistically. When you have an open, positive frame of mind, you are more flexible and capable of thinking in more innovative ways.
  • Make relatively unconstrained choices. Decide what you want to have happen, rather than just projecting what you currently assume to be realistic.

Decide and Stay The Course

Decide comes from the Latin decidere, which means “to cut off.” To return to the sailing metaphor, suppose you begin a journey from the East coast of the United States with the south of France as your desired destination. If the wind starts to blow southwest, would you suddenly decide that Cape Town, South Africa, is a better destination because you can get there faster? No, you adjust your sails, not your destination.

So, once you decide on a Future Picture, stay the course. Whether you encounter fair winds or foul, always navigate by the North Star of strategic thinking—your Future Picture.


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