Short-Term Thinking Is Our Biggest Problem. Here's 3 Ways To Fight It

Given the scale of the problems we face, it’s time that we began thinking in centuries-long cycles instead of four-year political terms.

In 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon asked China’s first premier, Zhou Enlai, for his assessment of the French Revolution, 183 years after the revolution’s conclusion. Zhou’s response: "It is too early to say."

Although we believe that the democracy that resulted from the French Revolution can be judged a success, the jury’s still out on some of the major challenges we still face. We are experiencing a major paradox: While problems and issues, like the global-warming crisis and the energy-water nexus, become more complex and require longer time frames to solve, the West is becoming increasingly shortsighted. China’s main competitive advantage over Europe and the United States may be its broader perception of time. Even the present financial crisis could have been avoided had we been looking at century-long cycles rather than four-year political periods.

Part of the problem is that the quickening pace of, well, just about everything is deemed a benefit. Over time, our political attention spans have adjusted to short electoral terms, the time it takes to market products is shrinking, and myopic quarterly reports set the business horizon. Just think: Computerized flash-trading practices recognize movements in market sentiment in split seconds.

Since hairsplitting shortsightedness is driven by technological and cultural changes, the trend will be hard to circumvent. But here are three suggestions to help the West develop a longer, healthier view of time:

Reward people much, much later in life.

In most companies, it’s common to reward people with bonuses once a year. This could easily be postponed. Stocks and stock options with long expiration dates are a step in the right direction. But what if we took the Chinese perspective and civil-servant approach? We would reward people decades after they were employed. We could even let historians help figure out how to distribute bonuses. Why not let pensions be determined by a person’s long-term contribution to a company or to society as a whole?

Maximize and promote the lifetime value of products.

Most fashion, technology, and consumer-goods companies deliberately shorten the lives of their products. As the design expert Peter Fiell says: "Designers fail when they act irresponsibly at a time when we need to make less of everything and make products last longer." In austere times, there is an opportunity to promote the long-term value—let’s call it the price per year of a product. Creating products that endure and maybe even become more valuable as they age, as well as finding new ways of doing business that would make such a model profitable, is an innovation challenge worth pursuing for long-term-thinking entrepreneurs and designers.

Bet on the way long term.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy announced the goal of sending an American to the Moon before the end of the decade. Such an outlandish aim is the benchmark for innovators all over the globe: They decide on an ambitious target and, with a strong vision, set out to reach it. Putting a man on the Moon is celebrated as an isolated event today. Kennedy had guts—what responsible politician would declare a 10-year goal?—and the West "won" the space race, but it doesn’t matter in the long run. The survival of our species does.

In retrospect, Kennedy’s goal was perhaps too nearsighted. Space experts argue that by focusing all American (and German) expertise on one symbolic goal, the big picture got lost. In the meantime, more advanced means of propulsion could have been developed to enable us to colonize remote corners of space, and crucial geoengineering experiments could have been conducted. Even more marginal space trips, like the manned exploration of Mars, were left behind in the debris.

In other words, let’s think bolder and further into the future. Let’s, for example, bet on reaching Gliese 581c, or one of the most viably habitable exoplanets by the end of this century. This might sound far-out, but not long ago, many Western countries had a similar long-term perspective. A few years ago, the Danish secretary of defense received a letter from a forester named Lars Toksvig informing him that the oak timber Denmark had ordered in 1807 to secure the fleet was ready for delivery. Today, this type of planning sounds preposterous. But perhaps that ability to project very, very far into the future is exactly what we need to relearn.

Written by Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen.

Rasmus Bech Hansen
is London-based strategy director at Venturethree, a global brand consultancy. He writes on how brands can do well by doing good and has helped to relaunch the United Nations Global Compact brand, the world’s most successful CSR initiative.

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  • pandora

    this is a well written article.  the comments (not all, but many of them) illustrate how the situation we (collectively as the human race) are facing is seriously challenging one in which wholesale shifts in our beliefs from individuals or geo-political or other "groupings" to that of One Unit.  The "One" factor being that we are united by our shared, lowest common denominator - living organism(s) dependent on our habitat and collective interactions.  We can do it, but it is going to take massive philosophical change and benevolent leadership...good luck finding the latter.  But I remain convinced, it is possible.  Why, I don't don't slam me for thinking it.  Some people have to see the ember. :)

    Thanks for a great article.

  • Graham

    There are so many holes in this.

    "Reward people much, much later in life.
    Ok, so you'd like to pat a person on the back after 5+ years? Do you think they'd like to stay there after 3? The problem with comparing a free society to a dictatorship ran socialist regime is the whole "free" thing. Employees are free to leave a company such as yours when ever they feel like it.But it's still a good idea because you keep that reward huh? Nope.You just invested in an employee's training and built a relationship. Amazing! Way to think Ski!"
    Kennedy had guts--what responsible politician would declare a 10-year goal?--and the West “won” the space race, but it doesn’t matter in the long run.
    What? Yes, Kennedy had guts. Politicians actually do plan into the future. However they're wise enough not to go about talking up their ideas so as not to make themselves look stupid when the plans fall through.And the west did not "win" the space race. We won the race to the moon. Not to space though.Do some research buddy.

  • Hfeather80

    Created a new type of American Car. Spent a year on the concept but found out from elected politicians it would be a lot of work. When I told them one year on design, they repeated a lot of work.

  • Julio Garcia

    You are right. Nowadays Man is shortsighted. The USA business culture, a shortsighted approach to instant profit, is spread allover the world. The belief that "fast is better" is killing us. Thank you to express your point. 

  • Paulglover

    Curiously, I don't believe the Danish navy needs the oak! The problem with long term planning in an age of rapid and continually change is: it doesn't work. The realization that fast paced innovation will be the norm for the foreseeable future dictate fast paced planning and rapid implementation be part of the planning process. While I'm not advocating shooting from the hip I am advocating practicing a fast draw with accurate aiming if thriving in the WorkQuake(tm) is the organization's goal.

  • Gregory Garber

    I appreciate the brain storming here. Very well intended.  Having historians sort out bonuses ekk...being far removed from an event with even less accurate information than what was provided at the time of someone's efforts really leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

  • Anonymous

    Longer lasting products are already being made! These are the products that are available to the most wealthy. This is the way our market works. You make a high quality product that is long lasting, and it costs more.

  • Roy Niles

    The stock markets are operated by short term profiteers.  What's your solution for that?

  • Cameron

    Great point in general, but the specifics are simplistic.

    When our politicians tell us that huge policy decisions are urgent and must be passed without delay or without even reviewing the actual implementation details of the policy, that is short-term thinking.
    When we ignore time-tested principles in favor of rash idealism, that is short-term thinking.  

    Businesses would love to stabilize our economic situation, but an inability to predict the future due to inconsistent public policy has paralyzed many businesses for the last few years.

    How do you propose we make lasting products when Rams-esque ones do mediocre at best and the fleeting fashion-driven ones make ridiculous amounts of money?

    Finally, how do you propose we make lasting products when we want to stick PCBs and LCDs and wireless technology into all of them, all of which have generations of no more than a few years?

  • lindsayrgwatt

    FYI: that Chinese story is one of the most misrepresented tales of all time. Zhou thought Nixon was talking about the French student revolutions of the previous year, not the revolution that brought down the monarchy.

  • Steven Leighton

    I agree with Salim.

    And: I think we need to include all externalities in with all financial valuations and appraisals.
    People ought to be awarded benefits for adding   economic/social/ environmental value to planet.
    Designers have to play the key role in this.
    LTT please --- not the next igadget roll out.

  • Salim

    I disagree with all of your proposals. Your first suggestion to "reward people later in life" assumes that there is some central organization that is in charge of rewarding the masses. What about the people who work for themselves? How do you factor in varying lifespans? Which rewards do you refer to (monetary rewards are not the only thing that motivate or create happiness). Your arguments are unfortunately woefully lacking in any meaningful insight.

    Your second proposal ignores the fundamental way we have progressed as a society -through constant cycles of innovation. Accumulated learning through increased rates of innovation, launching, feedback, iteration, failure and reinvention is what creates progress. Your proposal here makes very little sense.

    Your final proposal while admirable assumes that those making the long term goals (again a centralized brain trust) actually has the longer greater interests of the people at heart. Two of your arguments miss the fact that it cannot be a top down approach - the message must resonate and reflect back from the bottom up and be consistent.

    In summary while your premise is correct - we definitely need to find a way to incentivize and make society as a whole weigh the costs of the long term more than we currently all do - your methods to accomplish this are shallow and not very compelling.

  • atimoshenko

    I think a major indirect contributor is a very pyramidal hierarchical structure in which power to decide about anything for the long term is clustered at the top, but at the same time, those people at the top are also held responsible for everything else, including short-term performance. If a person is responsible for everything, and some of the things went well and others went badly, how do you evaluate this person and decide whether to keep him or her on? If long term development is one of a myriad of other responsibilities, of course it gradually gets pushed back in importance. Having flatter hierarchies and more atomised responsibilities (i.e. no one-ring-to-rule-them-all-the-buck-stops-here position), of which one would be long-term development, I think would be incredibly helpful.

  • Morey Bean

    Basic corporate accounting methodology needs to change to reward long term investment.  Shareholders need to acknowledge the need for long haul investing.

  • Laura

    This is very interesting. We do have very short attention spans, and they get shorter every year with on demand devices. We want what we want now. I can see how this can translate into other avenues, such as government and work.

    The only issue I see is the "Reward People Later in Life" part of your piece. While I agree that would create better and more dedicated workers, it doesn't address how companies don't value their employees from the beginning. There's no job security like there was in the past. Companies don't hire lifers, they hire what they need for the moment. I can see people working hard, deserving bonuses and other incentives, but getting to year 5 only to be let go by the company through no fault of the employee. How many people do you know personally that have been with a company for 10 years or more? The longest I've been able to be with a company has been 8 years before it merges and lays off the excess, goes under, etc.

  • Joel Kline

    Excellent points about the dearth of LT thinking, Skibsted.

    Short-term thinking is pervasive in the US. The failure of federal and state politicians to think long-term has led to problems with infrastructure and capacity.

    Ultimately, it comes down to money. If budgets are controlled solely by Congress they will optimize it to benefit their districts and projects which get them re-elected. Some form of innovation commission with earmarked budgets that stretch across political boundaries, parties, and Presidents would probably be necessary to make these long-term goals.

    Historically, it seems that innovations like the A-bomb, space exploration, the Internet, and Satellite technology (e.g. GPS) were successful because they were run by government agencies who could think long-term, employ the brightest minds, partner with academia, and be insulated from Congressional budget vagaries.

    Is this possible anymore?

  • Kathleen

    Interesting that yesterday this site had an article about trashing and burning your way through ideas/products, etc.  Maybe you should post these 2 articles together for comparision!