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photo shows business builders working and planning together to achieve long-term goals

Business Builder Series Part 2: Builders Have Long Time Horizons

February 29, 2024

Welcome back to the “Business Builder Series.” In Part 2, we continue our exploration of the transformative insights from ISBM Practice Fellow, Dan Adams’ influential work, “Business Builders: How to Become an Admired & Trusted Corporate Leader.” Building on the foundations laid in Part 1, this article explores one of the most critical aspects of being a successful Business Builder: the commitment to long-term planning and vision.

In Chapter 7 of his book, Dan Adams addresses a fundamental question: Why do many companies struggle to achieve profitable, sustainable growth? The answer lies in the time horizons that leaders set for their businesses.

As we journey through this chapter, we’ll uncover the importance of first and second order effects in business decisions, the pitfalls of a short-term focus, and practical steps for adopting a long-term perspective. Join us as we dive into the mindset that sets Business Builders apart and learn how embracing a long-term vision can be the key to lasting success in the business world.

Quick Takeaways

  • Achieving sustainable, profitable growth is a major challenge for companies, often due to a fundamental misalignment in their growth approach. 
  • Many business leaders prioritize short-term gains to please shareholders or meet financial targets, which can undermine long-term sustainability and growth opportunities. 
  • Understanding the first and second order effects in decision-making is crucial, as short-term decisions can lead to unintended long-term consequences.  
  •  A short-term focus in leadership can sacrifice long-term growth, create a reactive culture, undermine stakeholder trust, and lead to a cycle of ineffective short-term fixes. 
  • Long-term planning is essential for Business Builders, involving visionary foresight, balancing short- and long-term goals, fostering innovation, and using appropriate metrics for sustainable success.

The Challenge of Achieving Sustainable Growth

One of the most pressing challenges in the business world today is achieving sustainable, profitable growth. Dan Adams sheds light on why this goal often remains elusive for many companies. The root of the problem, as Adams points out, is not in the lack of effort or intent, but in the fundamental approach to growth itself.

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Horizons

graphic highlights quote from Dan Adams that says Business Builders’ actions in the short-term impact the long-term

A key issue identified by Adams is the prevalence of short-term thinking among business leaders. Many companies, driven by the desire to please shareholders or meet immediate financial targets, focus heavily on short-term gains.

This approach, while potentially yielding quick results, often comes at the expense of long-term sustainability. Leaders may bypass opportunities for lasting growth in favor of initiatives that promise immediate but fleeting success.

The Underlying Causes

Adams discusses several reasons behind this short-term focus:

  • Leaders’ Lack of Building Experience: Many leaders rise through the ranks without ever learning the ‘building trade,’ which includes nurturing long-term growth.
  • Pleasing Shareholders Over Other Stakeholders: There’s a tendency to prioritize shareholder satisfaction, sometimes overlooking the interests of customers, employees, and the broader community.
  • Personal Career Goals Over Business Health: Leaders might pursue strategies that favor their personal advancement rather than the long-term health of the business.
  • Fixation on Unreliable Growth Initiatives: A focus on initiatives that don’t drive reliable, long-term growth, often influenced by market trends or superficial metrics.

The Consequence of Short Horizons

The overarching consequence of these factors is a business environment dominated by short time horizons. Adams emphasizes that optimizing for both short-term and long-term simultaneously is a near impossibility. Decisions made today with a short-term focus can have adverse effects on the company’s future, often in ways that are not immediately apparent.

First Order and Second Order Effects in Business Decisions

In his insightful analysis, Adams introduces the concept of first order and second order effects, a critical framework for understanding the impact of business decisions. This concept is key to grasping why short-term decisions often lead to unintended long-term consequences.

Understanding the Domino Effect

Adams uses the metaphor of a domino effect to explain how actions in business, much like in any system, trigger a series of outcomes. The first order effect is the immediate and visible result of a decision. However, it’s the second order effects, the subsequent and often less obvious outcomes, that hold significant long-term implications.

Real-World Examples

To illustrate this, Adams recounts the historical example of the French colonial government in Hanoi placing a bounty on rat tails to control the rat population. The first order effect was the immediate increase in rat tails turned in.

graphic highlights action, first order effect, and second order effects of real-world example

However, the second order effects were unexpected: the emergence of tailless rats and the establishment of rat-breeding farms. This example vividly demonstrates how a well-intentioned decision can lead to unforeseen and undesirable outcomes

Business Implications

In the context of business, this concept is equally applicable. For instance, a company might implement a spending freeze to meet short-term financial targets (first order effect), but this could inadvertently slow down product development, affecting future revenue and growth (second order effects).

The Importance of Holistic Thinking

Adams emphasizes the importance of considering both first and second order effects in decision-making. Business leaders often focus on the immediate impact of their decisions (first domino), but it’s crucial to anticipate the chain reaction that follows (subsequent dominos

graphic shows Dan Adams’ example of first domino fixation

The Pitfalls of Short-Term Focus in Leadership

Dan Adams’ also brings to light the significant drawbacks of a short-term focus in leadership. This approach, while often appealing for its immediate results, can lead to a range of issues that undermine a company’s long-term health and viability.

Sacrificing Long-Term Growth

One of the most glaring pitfalls of short-term thinking is the sacrifice of long-term growth opportunities.

Leaders fixated on immediate outcomes might neglect investments in research and development, employee training, or market expansion, all of which are crucial for sustainable growth. This short-sightedness can stifle innovation and leave the company vulnerable to future challenges.

Creating a Reactive Culture

A leadership style that prioritizes short-term results can also foster a reactive rather than proactive business culture. Teams may become accustomed to shifting priorities based on immediate needs, leading to a lack of consistent direction and strategy. This environment can demotivate employees and hinder the development of a strong, forward-thinking organizational culture.

Undermining Stakeholder Trust

Short-term focus can also erode trust among various stakeholders, including:

  • Customers
  • Employees
  • Investors

When decisions are made with only immediate gains in mind, it can lead to choices that are not in the best interest of these groups, damaging relationships and the company’s reputation over time.

The Risk of First Domino Amnesia

Adams introduces the concept of “first domino amnesia,” where leaders repeatedly fail to recognize the long-term consequences of their short-term decisions. 

graphic shows Dan Adams’ example of first domino amnesia

This lack of foresight and learning from past mistakes can trap a company in a cycle of short-term fixes that don’t address underlying issues, hindering meaningful progress.

The Importance of Long-Term Planning for Business Builders

Long-term planning for Business Builders is critical to success. This strategic approach is not just a preference, but a fundamental necessity for those aiming to achieve sustainable growth.

Building a Visionary Future

Long-term planning allows Business Builders to set a visionary course for their companies. It involves looking beyond the immediate market trends and financial cycles to establish a roadmap for future growth.

This foresight enables them to anticipate changes, adapt strategies accordingly, and seize opportunities that may not yield immediate returns but are crucial for future success.

Balancing Short-Term and Long-Term Goals

Adams highlights the skill of balancing short-term pressures with long-term objectives. While immediate results are important, they should not overshadow the broader vision. Effective Business Builders understand how to navigate this balance, ensuring that short-term achievements contribute to the long-term goals of the company.

Fostering Innovation and Sustainability

Long-term planning is inherently tied to innovation and sustainability. By committing to a long-term horizon, Business Builders create an environment where innovation can flourish. This approach encourages investment in research and development, nurturing ideas that may take time to mature but have the potential to revolutionize the market.

Mitigating Risks and Uncertainties

In a rapidly changing business landscape, long-term planning is also a tool for risk mitigation. By thinking ahead, Business Builders can identify potential challenges and develop strategies to address them proactively. This forward-thinking mindset is crucial in navigating uncertainties and maintaining a steady course towards growth.

Practical Steps for Adopting a Long-Term Horizon

In his book, Dan Adams not only underscores the importance of long-term planning for Business Builders, but also provides practical steps for adopting this crucial perspective. These steps are essential for leaders who wish to transition from a short-term focus to a more sustainable, long-term approach in their business strategies.

graph shows that companies exhibiting long-term behavior had higher revenue, earnings, market cap, and job creation
  1. Cultivate Forward-Thinking: Develop a mindset that prioritizes long-term impacts over immediate outcomes, considering how today’s decisions shape the future.
  2. Align Goals with Vision: Set business objectives that not only meet immediate needs but also align with the company’s long-term aspirations.
  3. Invest in Sustainable Initiatives: Focus on investments like R&D, employee development, and market expansion that promise long-term benefits, even if they don’t offer immediate returns.
  4. Foster Innovation Culture: Create an environment that encourages innovation and experimentation, essential for long-term growth and adaptability.
  5. Review and Adjust Strategies: Regularly reassess and adapt long-term strategies to stay aligned with changing market conditions and emerging opportunities.
  6. Educate Stakeholders: Communicate the importance of a long-term approach to all stakeholders, building a shared vision for the company’s future.
  7. Use Long-Term Metrics: Measure success with metrics that reflect progress towards long-term goals, moving beyond short-term financial indicators.

By implementing these steps, leaders can effectively shift towards a long-term perspective, positioning themselves as true Business Builders dedicated to sustained growth and success.

Secure Future Success with ISBM Today

Part 2 of the Business Builders series reinforces the pivotal role of long-term planning in achieving sustainable business success. Dan Adams’ insights guide us to understand that true Business Builders are visionaries who look beyond the immediate horizon. 

By adopting the practical steps outlined, leaders can transition from short-term focus to a strategic, long-term approach, ensuring their businesses not only survive, but thrive in the ever-evolving corporate landscape. This shift in perspective is not just a strategy, but a commitment to building a legacy of enduring success.

ISBM is a nonprofit, global network of business researchers and practitioners. Ask about how an ISBM Membership can help you now or visit ISBM today to learn more!

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