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What Could Have Been — and Still Can Be

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Chuck Wallace
April 30, 2018

In the Fog of War, Robert McNamarra discusses a poem by Rudyard Kipling titled The Palace. The poem speaks of a king who throughout his rein, believed he was doing what was best for all in his kingdom. As he reached the end of his life, the king comes to the realization his decisions, although made with the best intentions, have left his kingdom in ruins. Devastated by the realization his motives, decisions and intentions were not good enough, he passes on to his successor, his dreams and wishes of a perfect kingdom.

At some point in our leadership career, perhaps just prior to retirement, or leaving a specific position in mid-career, we wonder, what if and reflect on what could have been. What would today look like, and what would the future have held, if only we were able to change one or two things from our past? Where would the company, or community or even you be, if you had gone the distance? Not just taken the easy route, but pushed for better, longer term progress, economically and culturally beneficial for many years into the future. Would different decisions or a different path forward, have made any difference to you?

Our current technologic, social media driven, almost immediate gratification required, societal norms, have changed the way we think about planning, specifically long-range planning today. What was once considered to be a five-to-ten-year projection, has been condensed into a two-to-three-year future forecast. Well-intended executives and elected officials, grasping for something tangible to show progress in the immediate, especially to the people they serve, may unintentionally neglect the long term needs that will affect their businesses and communities, decades into the future. It’s easy, and understandable why a quick fix is sought, but they are walking a fine line between success in the immediate, versus inevitable failure, in the not so distant future. One must remain cognizant, leaning into very safe decisions on projects today, to show progress, may become an ultimate detriment to the progress of the organization. Understanding, extremely hard to achieve, long term project planning, on an issue that may not show the benefits of the project for years or even decades from today, could be extremely unpopular, although ultimately quite necessary for the sustainability of the business or department.

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Ari Wallach, in his October 2016 TEDTalk, 3 ways to plan for the (very) long term, suggests we take a step back and begin to plan for bigger and more meaningful aspirations. Plan for more than a two-to-three-year project, even more than five-to-ten-year projects. He suggests thinking and planning in a practice of “long path” and its three phases, transgenerational thinking, futures thinking and telos thinking.

Transgenerational thinking is thinking far into the beyond, even past our own lifetime unit of measure, far into the future. Pushing for project results bigger and better than dreamed possible, creating a new cultural norm away from the current models.

The second phase Wallach discusses, future thinking, is thinking beyond the dominant cultural lens of technology today. Thinking about many futures beyond our current technology centered society, toward moral evolution. Understanding future thinking is more uncertain and less safe. Acknowledging, someday someone, will face the reckoning, of having to correct what has remained undone and untended to, for years, by past generations. Even worse, they may be left with possible disastrous results of catastrophic collapse of the organization, a bridge, a building, or the power grid, along with likely injury to individuals, communities and regions.

Telos thinking, means pushing for the ultimate aim and ultimate purpose and to what end? It involves thinking longer than ever before, 30 years, 50 years, even past 100 years to comprehend where you could be and how far your plans could extend out from that new end goal.

I would venture to say there are more than a few executives and officials who at the time of final self-reflection at the end of their career or of their current position, wouldn’t like to have one more chance to change a decision that was made, or not made, to quell the disruption of the immediate gratification seekers. A chance to make a long-term plan with an additional addendum, on what to do once the plan had been completed while attempting to answer the question of “What does everything look like at this new point in time,” and “What do we do now?”

Looking back, upon retirement or job change, each of us wishes to see our accomplishments that will help sustain our organizations for decades into the future. It won’t occur unless we begin to look farther into the future and plan for what can be and where can we go from that point. Align objectives and performance for the far future and perhaps the unachievable will become accomplishable.


Author: Chuck Wallace is the current Past-President of the Washington State Emergency Management Association (WSEMA) He has an MPA and speaks throughout the country on issues related to emergency management barriers and practice. His email is [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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