Jim was the CEO of a company that designed and manufactured packaging of all shapes and sizes.  Their products embraced all the latest technology and included advanced plastics, bubble wrap, polystyrene and different sorts of pliable cardboard (they called it ‘intelligent’ cardboard, almost certainly a contradiction in terms). 

Jim was one of those who, every waking moment, exhibit such boundless energy and enthusiasm that it is impossible to believe they are genuine. A large man, slightly overweight, with a florid complexion, one couldn’t help but think that he was a prime candidate for an early heart attack.  When you met him he would bound forward with a huge smile on his face and a big hand outstretched.  His handshake was vigorous and his eye contact unflinching.  He talked loud and fast. You were left in no doubt that this man was in command.  He exuded charisma.

Jim’s philosophy can be summed up with just one three-letter word: now.  He never tired of telling people that life was just one now after another.  Past nows had gone and there was nothing you could do about them.  Future nows lay ahead, were not even guaranteed, and were full of unknowns.  The only certainty was your current reality – now. 

Jim even knew how many seconds there were in a day and on his office wall he had a framed poster which read:

Imagine a bank that credits your current account each morning with £86,400.  At the end of each day it deletes the balance you haven’t used and credits you with the next instalment of £86,400. 

You have such a bank.  Its name is time.  Every morning it credits you with 86,400 seconds.  It carries over no balance.  It allows no overdraft.  It is up to you to use the daily balance. 

Yesterday is history.  Tomorrow is mystery.  Today is a gift – that’s why it’s called the present.

This approach to life meant that Jim refused to dwell on the past, not even on the recent past such as what happened yesterday.  He just pressed on, refusing to entertain any regrets or guilt (he claimed that guilt was pointless – the equivalent of worrying backwards).

The ‘now’ philosophy had, however, an unexpected effect on Jim’s approach to the future.  You might have expected that he would condemn planning for the future, with all its uncertainties, as a waste of precious ‘now’ time.  On the contrary, Jim saw planning as a legitimate ‘now’ activity – a sensible investment in shaping the pattern of future nows.  Admittedly, he was only prepared to contemplate the near future.  He had a three-month time horizon; anything beyond that was a stretch too far. ‘In the long run,’ he’d say cheerfully, ‘we’re all dead.’  So he refused to waste precious ‘now’ time on things like a long-term strategy or a five-year business plan.  A three-month rolling plan was fine; anything longer-term was futile.

Jim treated everything as a campaign, with a clear beginning and end.  The idea of continuity bored him.  In fact, Jim’s determination to treasure every second meant that he had an abnormally low boredom threshold.  If nothing exciting was happening, then he’d find a way to stir things up.  If, for example, he was talking to a person he found boring, he’d suddenly ask them a disconcerting question such as, ‘What’s the worst thing that has ever happened to you?’  Or, ‘How do you feel about squirrels?’  Or,  ‘How’s your sex life?’  Jim found that people’s reactions to unexpected questions like these made conversations much more interesting.  Some people would take offence and refuse to answer (always interesting!), some would look surprised but manage an answer, others would happily lurch into an amusing anecdote. 

Campaigns, Jim maintained, kept staff focused and gave them a sense of urgency.  It wasn’t that he’d reject continuous improvement, say, or quality circles, just that he’d prefer to break the activities involved into chunks and make each chunk a campaign. Jim usually thought of ideas for campaigns while shaving, and by the time he reached his office the idea would have crystallised and Jim would be eager to start.  A campaign with a small ‘c’ could last for as short a time as a week.  Examples were to ask everyone to smile, to clear the site of litter, to greet customers in person or on the phone with the words ‘How may I help?’, to limit the length of documents to one side of A4, to limit the number of emails sent to colleagues to a maximum of five per day…. and so on.  Campaigns with a big ‘C’, lasting for up to twelve weeks (Jim’s horizon!), tackled more substantial issues such as how to make meetings more productive (halve the length, double the actions), how to reduce waste, how to speed up decision making, how to introduce flexitime, how to increase the autonomy of teams.

Jim was blissfully happy, improvising as he went along.  Until, that is, the chairman of the company retired and a new one took over.  The old chairman had been happy to abdicate responsibility to Jim – anything for an easy life.  But the new man, unfortunately for Jim, was keen on strategy (he even talked of strategic leadership!) and one of the first things he wanted to review was the five-year business plan.  This, of course, did not exist.

Jim did his best to explain the ‘now’ philosophy with all its advantages –  innovation, flexibility, being nimble in the face of change, keeping people fresh and on their toes.  But the new chairman frowned and shook his head.  ‘Jim,’ he said, ‘you’re making an erroneous assumption.’ 

He tended to use words like erroneous.  At first Jim thought he was saying erogenous – a far more interesting notion – but, sadly, he soon realised the chairman meant what he said. 

‘You see,’ he continued, ‘the point of strategic planning is to have something to change, not to have something to implement. The key to being nimble is to have a plan that you can quickly adapt in the light of changed circumstances that you couldn’t predict.  It takes much longer if you have to start from scratch each time.’

Jim looked puzzled.  ‘If the proof of a pudding is in the eating, I thought the proof of a plan was in its implementation.’

‘Absolutely not,’ said the chairman, refusing to budge. ‘I’m afraid you’ve missed the point.  Plans are nothing, planning is everything.’

Jim moved from looking puzzled to looking doubtful.  The chairman then made a tactical error (he might have thought it was strategic!).  He said, ‘Planning is always work in progress.  It is everlasting.  It never ends.’

When Jim heard that the chairman expected him to indulge in an endless activity, he decided there and then to embark on a new campaign; to find himself another job – preferably one where a talent for short-termism would be appropriate and appreciated.

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