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Are you strategic about the future? You might want to think again

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As the House and Senate wrangle over transportation funding, you have to wonder if the issue at hand – stop-gap funding to the states to keep current projects going – isn't blinding everyone to a bigger question.

It’s not, “How do we get where we’re going?” It should be, “Do we still have the right destination?”

(If you missed it, here’s a summary of the latest transportation bill fail.)

It’s a question smart businesses wrestle with all the time. If you aren’t constantly reassessing everything about your business, from the bottom up, you risk not having a business someday. A competitor will flatten you by doing a better job or your customers will simply move on because what you offer is passé.

“But I do a plan every year!” you say.

As someone smarter than me said not too long ago, having a strategic plan is not the same as being strategic. It can be very satisfying, year after year, to write up a detailed plan, with shiny goals and stretch financial targets; it feels even better when you then execute. But if you’re traveling down the wrong road in the first place, it doesn’t matter how pretty your map is or how effective you are at following it

The Cato Institute – not an organization known for its flights of fancy or for haste in jumping on the latest trend – posted a thoughtful article last month about transportation planning, titled “Planning for the Unpredictable.” It poses a question so simple – and unanswerable – it’s almost embarrassing: Why do we keep on doing things the way we always have, when we know massive, disruptive change is on the horizon?

As author Randal O’Toole puts it, “How do you plan for the unpredictable? That’s the question facing the more than 400 metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that have been tasked by Congress to write 20-year transportation plans for their regions. Self-driving cars will be on the market in the next 10 years, are likely to become a dominant form of travel in 20 years …”

The underlying question is one that faces any industry undergoing disruption. How do you meet current needs (in this case, pavement, bridges that don’t fall down, urban mass transit and so on) even as you prepare for a different future? (Question: Will police training need to change – how will police training need to change – when officers spend less and less time writing tickets for driver infractions because of self-driving cars? How will municipalities and the courts cope with dwindling revenues from fines? Who will be liable when an accident occurs? Will we need special self-driving lanes to keep the “safe” traffic away from the diehards who insist on driving their own vehicles? Will “drivers” still need driver’s licenses? What impact will that have on state transportation budgets? Will your delivery costs go up or down?)

When new technology emerges, it’s nearly always impossible to predict the fallout. Those of you who had mobile phones 20 years ago – did you ever imagine where that would go? Those of you born into the digitalscape – can you imagine it any other way?

I’m afraid I’ve just got lots of questions this week and very few answers. Just a strong suggestion that you try to make it a habit in your own business, career, life to try to frame the questions instead of doing the same old thing year after year. And dare to ask them.

The week ahead

Every area has one – that place that seems perfect for a business, yet they come and go because no one seems able to succeed. And you wonder why. Reporter Mike Sadowski looks for some of the answers as a couple of new businesses get ready to open in some of those spots in Lebanon County.

Also in this week’s Business Journal, Jason Scott takes us inside a growing real estate broker that’s bucking the trend on agency consolidation.

And then there’s jelly. Joe Deinlein has the story on a successful product that fell by the wayside, only to be rediscovered and revived by a York County entrepreneur.

This week’s Inside Business focus is on inclusion in the workplace. Can you identify unconscious bias in your hiring? How far can employees go in religious expression and what is acceptable at your business? If we’ve made progress in civil rights and diversity awareness, what purpose do minority business organizations serve?

You can find the week’s networking opportunities here.

The rewind

Last year, when I was still in the grip of new-car excitement, I mentioned how it’s possible to love “a sculpted, rolling hunk of metal, glass and plastic.” I’ve still got the glow bad enough to regret the day when the thrill of the open road is forgotten. I suppose people felt the same way as the gasoline engine marginalized horses. In fact, one of the saddest things I’ve read is in a memoir by the current English Duchess of Devonshire, who remembers the day in the 1930s when the estate’s magnificent Shire plow horses were sent to slaughter, because they had been replaced by gas-powered farm machinery.

So progress always has its price.

Here’s a side note on driving that may become obsolete in our lifetimes: According to this story on BloombergBusinessweek, women drivers have more fender-benders than men, but 71 percent of drivers killed in highway crashes are men. Wow.

Hope Stephan

Hope Stephan

Hope Stephan is editor of the Central Penn Business Journal. A Pennsylvania native, she is a graduate of Penn State and Xavier University. Have a question or tip for her? Email her at hopes@cpbj.com. Follow her on Twitter, @hstephan. Circle Hope Stephan on .

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