Long-Term Strategic Planning Doesn’t Have to Be Boring

Sometimes a long-term vision is so lofty or so aggressive it comes across as an unachievable dream, instead of a realistic vision. If that’s the case with your vision, congratulations on having such a worthy idea! But if people don’t believe your vision will ever happen, they won’t be motivated to help you deliver it. If you’re in that situation, this story might help.

In early 2010, I was asked to help lead a multidisciplinary team tasked with recommending a long-term strategy for Procter & Gamble’s Paper Division. What type of products did we want to sell in 10, 15, or 20 years, and in what parts of the world? Despite the noble objectives, it was a hard project to get people to sign up for. By definition, nothing we came up with would get to market while we were in these jobs, and maybe not even during our working lifetimes.

Meanwhile, our peers got to work on the next big product upgrade launching in the spring. They wouldn’t have to wait more than a few months to be celebrating success, and enjoying the rewards that came with it. Besides, most people were skeptical that long-term planning was of any real value to the company anyway. I knew I had to convince the team that our mission was not only necessary for the company, and that it would be a rewarding experience.

On the banks of the Tammerkoski River

So, at our first meeting, I told them the story of another paper company, not too different from ours. It began in 1865 when Fredik Idestam built a pulp mill on the banks of the Tammerkoski River in southwestern Finland. Before too long, he added a papermaking machine. And, as with any papermaking company at the time, much of what the company produced was used for stationery, newsprint, and books—the primary means of communication before the age of television, radio, and telephone. So in a way, it was in the communications business.

By 1900, it was already one of the biggest paper producers in Finland and was looking for opportunities to grow. Electricity was a rapidly growing source of energy at the time. So in 1902 it decided to build its own electric generators to run its paper making machines, and then sell the excess current to local businesses.

But, by the end of the 1910s the company was struggling financially, so it decided to join forces with Finnish Rubber Works. Rubber is a natural insulator for electricity, so there were obvious synergies from combining the companies.

Fast forward another decade, and by the early 1920s telephone service was a rapidly growing business and cables were still being laid from city to city. So, in 1922 the company combined operations with the Finnish Cable Company. And over the next several decades, it continued to expand smartly into adjacent industries and around the world.

By 2008, it had become an $80 billion company with operations in 120 countries around the world, and a market leader in its main business line, which is still communications. You know the company by the same name it had a hundred years ago when it was producing paper in Finland — Nokia.

Now imagine what would have happened if it had not chosen to expand into other industries at various points in its growth. Nokia would probably still be the biggest manufacturer of paper in Finland, a country about the size of the state of Minnesota.*

The point, I explained to the team, was not that we should get into the cell phone business, but simply that we were already a successful paper company. To continue to grow, we needed to expand beyond our current industry definition. We could either let that happen by chance, or we could by choice plot wise moves at each step the way Nokia did. Our management prefers the latter, and it selected us to help choose the first steps. Most businesspeople will go an entire career and never have an opportunity to impact the future of the business beyond the next fiscal year or two. We’ve been asked to help steer the next two decades!

“Who’s interested?” I asked.

Every hand went up, and we got straight to work.

The Nokia story helped our team understand that the work was important and the goal was achievable. After all, it had been done before by a company that started out just like ours. This, or a similar story from your industry, could do the same for your long-term strategy team.

*As of this writing, the advent of smartphones have taken much of Nokia’s market share. Perhaps it’s time to make another smart move into adjacent territory as it has in the past.

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Source: Lead with a Story: How to Craft Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire, by Paul Smith.

Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a StoryParenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.

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