Better by Far: How to Combat Short-Termism at Work

Last Updated May 26, 2010 6:52 AM EDT


Short-termism is a modern malaise that can pressure managers to deliver in the near term while preventing them from stepping back to see the bigger picture. "It's understandable, especially given the economy, but potentially devastating if you're after sustainable success in business," says Neela Bettridge, the co-founder of Article 13 and an executive coach. "

The always-on consumerist society engenders a culture of instant gratification. In our working lives, we are blitzed with information, we suffer from attention deficit. Unable to resist the urge to communicate, communicate, communicate, we have lost a sense of having space and time to reflect on things. We have lost the opportunity to be mindful," she adds.

Here, she offers some solutions to help managers balance immediate results with future interests.

  1. Walk the talk How does the senior leadership team behave? If they say all the right things about environmental sustainability, yet drive around in gas-guzzlers, they send out a mixed message at best. Management must set the tone for the rest of the organisation. If the corporate messaging is about having a sustainable responsible approach to business, managers must adopt behaviour consistent with this.
  2. Plan for different futures Vikings read the runes, ancient Romans consulted augurs. But managers have more sophisticated methods of divining the future -- scenario planning, for example, pioneered by Arie de Geus at Shell, can be an effective way of exploring alternate futures and the impact of possible scenarios on the business.
  3. Create values To move towards transparency, accountability, sustainability and responsibility, embed these ideals into day-to-day behaviour at your company (how you measure people's performance, for example) -- and enshrine them in its values. Wal-Mart's sustainability index, which maps the environmental impact of its products and the social and environmental impact of its suppliers, is driving the issue of sustainability throughout its value chain.
  4. Radicalise innovation When current products and services are producing predictable revenue streams, it's easy to keep on doing what you're doing or make micro- improvements. But managers must also try to embrace the uncomfortable notion of risky, more radical innovation. The profits may be uncertain, but the prospect of sustaining the long-term future of the business makes it worthwhile.
  5. Pause for thought It's essential for managers to make time in their day for periods of reflection and imagination. Whether it is on a business journey, in the office, or taking time out in the gym, create space for thought. Because if you're constantly on the run, responding to problems as they are thrown at you, you're likely to make some very short-termist decisions.
Says Bettridge: "I'm not suggesting we should eradicate short-termism completely -- there's still a place for urgency, deadlines and immediate action. But if you can balance this with a more future-oriented perspective, a more thoughtful, deliberative, participative, decision making process, attending to the now with a nod to the needs of the future, you and your business will benefit in the long term."

A simple tip: Anya Hindmarch, high-end handbag-maker and an example of survival in the UK fashion industry, keeps several to-do lists going at once: today, this week, this month, whenever.

(Image: Torley, CC2.0)