"The future is not what it used to be." - Paul Valery

THE IMPORTANCE OF CREATING A VISION FOR YOUR organization's future cannot be overstated. It also is one of the most difficult challenges to confront. As an admired and astute car dealer friend of mine recently remarked, "Your ultimate success will be determined by how you manage your business during good times."

You can't see the undercurrents on a calm ocean, but they are there. Likewise, the undercurrents of change that are swirling around us are masked by an unprecedented economic cycle that will spawn sales of more than 16 million new vehicles this year.

But if you check out your compass you will see that the industry is being pulled in directions that you may not want to go without some preparation: Internet; AutoNation; manufacturer retail networks; more- informed and demanding consumers who will settle for nothing less than controlling their purchase process. This litany of change is familiar, but because everyone in this stoked-up economy has money to buy new cars, you haven't felt the impact - yet.

The strength of our economy makes it seem more difficult to devote the time and energy to deciding what your company should look like three years from now. But it is easier to begin deconstructing a proven model at the height of prosperity than when you're forced to change due to severe financial constraints. When tougher economic times put the squeeze on your organization, time won't be on your side.

20/20 FORESIGHT The first step in creating a vision is to take your entire management team off-site for a minimum of two days. More than likely, you are now saying to yourself, "I can't afford to leave my organization without my expensive supervision team for that long." If this is even close to your immediate response, you should plan such a meeting sooner rather than later.

If your organization cannot function for as little as two days without management, you have a systemic problem already. You have created an environment in which front-line employees only can succeed when following constant and explicit instructions. You are operating in an environment that is driven by personality instead of process. This is exactly the opposite of what all good learning organizations strive for: independence and empowerment to make decisions for the people who directly interact with your customers.

THE PURPOSE OF VISION Vision is to establish a destination for your team to reach together. If they know where you're going, they'll help you make the constant corrections to keep you on course - adjusting to the undercurrents - if you let them. I would recommend plotting your course only two to three years at a time. Things are changing so fast you can't see much farther. For example, what consumers wanted from your organization three years ago is vastly different from what they will want in 2002.

After determining where your organization wants to go, identify the skills sets, resources and consulting/training services you'll need to get there. Only then can you pinpoint the gaps between what you have and what you'll need to get to where you're going. Examples of gaps that I see frequently are:

* Service departments that rely on warranty work, which quickly is evaporating.

* Sales consultants who are averse to technology or technologically challenged.

* Mediocre customer service standards.

* The lack of advanced customer amenities such as money-back guarantees.

* No comprehensive Internet strategy for sales, service and customer communication.

Once you have determined your gaps, create an action plan for change. The action plan should be specific: what change is going to be made, who is responsible for the change and when it will be accomplished.

THE PITFALL The one thing you don't want to do is conduct a vision meeting and have everybody feel good about what you have accomplished, return to the store, and conduct business as usual. This is an easy trap to fall into. Everyone wants to remain in their comfort zone; shaking them loose is a real test of leadership.

Another test of leadership is changing the way you operate personally. You may remember that classic definition of insanity, "Doing what you have always done and expecting different results." If you aren't willing to change, why should anyone else? And if nothing changes at the top, you can bet nothing will improve at the bottom.

Challenge yourself to look for opportunities to demonstrate real change in your attitude, decision-making style and operating behavior. Manage your business today with the future in mind. It will save you hundreds of thousands of dollars - perhaps the business itself.

Don't emulate that famous Mad magazine philosopher, Alfred E. Newman, whose blithe response to every calamity was, "What, me worry?"

Mark Rikess is president of The Rikess Group, an automotive training and consulting firm. To read his previous Ward's Dealer Business articles on-line go to www.rikessgroup.com