Third Wave Planning is a Contact Sport

Futurist Alvin Toffler defined three waves of change: First Wave – the Agrarian Age, Second Wave – the Industrial Age, and Third Wave – the Knowledge Age. Because the fundamentals vary from age to age, it stands to reason that strategic planning should also be different across the three waves.

Second Wave Planning – the Industrial Age

Second Wave strategic planning is the kind of planning most of us are familiar with. It involves taking inventory of what change has happened in the past year within a known market or customer space. The outputs tend to be goals, objectives, and initiatives, focused primarily on the next year or two. Somewhat academic in nature, second wave planning typically involves affirmations of things the organization is already doing.

Moving to the Third Wave – the Knowledge Age

Today’s organizations stand squarely in the Knowledge Age– an age in which innovation trumps standardization, courage and brains outwit order and discipline, and information is king over capital.  No longer does good strategic planning entail simply identifying goals and objectives.

Instead, planning in the Knowledge Age must create imperatives – calls to action, if you will – that drive the change an organization must make to itself to accomplish its goals and objectives.

If second wave planning is talking about change, third wave planning is making it.




Present to future

Future back to present

Maneuver around barriers

Remove barriers

Stove-piped within organizations

Integrated across organizations


Collaborative from top-down and bottom-up

Planners drive and create it

Customers/stakeholders central to planning

Static, tangible product

Dynamic, virtual product

Focus on control of owned tangible resources (land, labor, capital)

Focus on taking advantage of intangible resources (e.g., knowledge, IP, innovation)

Winning strategies are declarative

Winning strategies are flexible

Moderate change from cycle to cycle

Constant acceleration, compressed cycles

Focus on the “job” at hand

Focus on delivering long-term “value”

Prove and codify

Hypothesize, test, apply, refine

Cycle is calendar-driven

Cycle is continuous and iterative


Making change happen in the Third Wave

Planning for tomorrow’s success is a contact sport. It’s a down-and-dirty, hands-on, and neck-deep process. There is a certain degree of urgency which must be communicated to all levels of an organization’s workforce and stakeholders. Focusing on imperatives rather than goals helps build buy-in for what is to come.

Constituents from all across the organization must be prepared to roll up their sleeves and plan for how they will manage and lead change simultaneously in six key areas as they address their markets:

  • Relationships – deep customer and partner relationships to better understand current and future needs
  • Strategy – alignment around imperatives and disruptive business models
  • Structure – collaboration across business units and with partners, suppliers, and the end consumer
  • People – agile leadership and an engaged workforce
  • Process – customer-focused processes with key performance indicators that validate performance towards imperatives
  • Technology – solutions that facilitate information sharing, knowledge management, and seamless operations

Planning to manage and lead transformational change involves asking a few crucial questions:

  • How will the organization make change happen in ways that are synchronized, aligned, and mutually reinforcing?
  • What is changing around the organization that compels it to make changes in order to be ready for the future?
  • How can the company change today to take advantage of conditions that will exist in the future?

The status quo of strategic planning won’t propel an organization to the next level.  It won’t create the imperatives necessary to navigate a rapidly-changing world.  It won’t arm organizational leaders with an understanding of how to plan for and adapt to risks and opportunities along the way.

Alvin Toffler’s Third Wave is here. And it’s time to meet it head-on!

About the Authors

Toffler Associates

As a consulting and advisory firm, Toffler Associates delivers strategic advantage to clients around the globe with an unwavering commitment to be the catalyst for change. Both the public and private sectors rely on Toffler Associates’ Future Proof® business consulting service and unique perspective to architect better futures.

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