3 July 2009 • 7:00 am

Evolution and Your Brain; Strategic Planning and Dental Floss

Our brains are not helping us as strategic planners. That’s my take-away from an interesting op-ed column yesterday by New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof. Kristof summarizes some academic research that tells us what may be obvious to many; that the human brain is not very good at judging risk. Evolution has made us far better at responding to immediate threats, like snakes or enemies with clubs, than to prospectively greater dangers in the future. According to Kristof, this hypothesis is worthy of note given our apparently tepid response to the risks of climate change compared with the apparently terrifying prospect of former Guantánamo Bay inmates being transferred to high-security prisons on U.S. soil.

Kristof quotes Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, who says, “What’s important is the threats that were dominant in our evolutionary history. In contrast, the kinds of dangers that are most serious today – such as climate change – sneak in under the brain’s radar.” One online comment to Kristof piece adds, “We still are genetically engineered to respond to the earth’s cycles and waves, our bodies’ needs, and signals from the natural world. We may have lost the agility for hunting and gathering that comes from practice, but in our cells we are earth-people, only a couple of mutations away from modern men living in caves. Some coincidence of circumstances has made that we have been a successful species in terms of numbers, but we have difficulty in terms of adaptation.

This thinking agrees with my own experience. Well-intentioned organization leaders may be cognizant of long-term risks and opportunities, but disproportionately focus their time and attention, as well as the organization’s scare resources, on short-term risks and results. This “short-term-itis” as I like to call it, is especially prevalent in for-profit organizations fixated on quarterly earnings reports and stock market valuations. We have certainly seen the adverse impact of short-term thinking on the U.S. auto industry.

But long-term thinking is not completely out of reach. An effective strategic planning process is naturally inclined to shift a leadership team’s thinking beyond the near-term, at least when the team is together and charged with the strategic planning task. But what is crucial is what happens when they return to their “day jobs.” Are your leaders making their everyday decisions in consideration of long-term consequences, or in terms of short-term risk and rewards? The allure of short-term thinking is exceptionally strong, and increases with the level of anxiety and uncertainty in the organization and its competitive environment. So a key indicator of the effectiveness of your organization’s strategic planning process is the extent to which it changes the way every member of the organization thinks about its long-term future.

According to Kristof, it’s kind of like dental floss. His glib conclusion: “When we work at it, we are indeed capable of foresight: If we can floss today to prevent tooth decay in later years, then perhaps we can also drive less to save the planet.” Based on the challenge of sustaining the strategic planning process in most organizations, my conclusion: “Don’t bet on it.

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