It will not have escaped readers’ notice that we have been promised many things by politicians during the past few years. Their manifesto pledges, whether in documents or on the sides of buses, have become more and more extreme in order to attract both voters and votes. But there is extreme risk in making promises that are largely undeliverable, or over which there is little control.

And, much like the new government leading the UK, business leaders in 2020 need to consider the realism of their business plans, to make sure they can achieve what they propose. We are under constant pressure to grow and thrive, but the environment around us becomes ever less reliable.

Of course, we have never been able to “predict the unpredictable”, but it does seem that curve balls are thrown our way more frequently than ever before. From Brexit and other constitutional issues, to even greater concerns such as the climate crisis, the landscape is ever-changing.

Companies will have been caught out many times over the past 15 years as conditions have caused difficulty in accurately predicting their futures. From the banking crisis to Brexit, GDPR and changes in tax structures to increased awareness of environmental issues, and the massive advances in technology and growing importance of social media in communications, many things have conspired against accurate forecasting or caused real difficulty in setting stakeholders’ expectations.

How, then, can businesses deliver against their plans when they cannot manage these external forces?

Corporate performance can be monitored against previous years, competitor activity or against forecast. Therefore, objectives can be set against any or all of these comparators.

Analysing how a business measures up against its competitors is the best way to monitor performance. Everyone in a specific sector will face broadly the same economic, political and social challenges. So you are likely to be on a level playing field. After all, if you outperform your competitors, your market share increases and, as the joke says, you don’t need to outrun the opposition, only the lion.

Setting these corporate objectives is critical to business, and the board must work hard with senior management to establish realistic and achievable targets while still embracing ambition. Nowadays, these long-term plans will also need to include large degrees of tolerance to take into account the moving political, economic, technological and legislative landscapes along with potential new competitors and market disruptors.

It is, therefore, crucial that boards and management teams include people with the right skill sets to help future-proof their business. This can be achieved not only through improved understanding of what these required skills are, but also through more effective recruitment and through leadership training. Increased diversity on boards and staff will also encourage greater challenge and a broader understanding of market and customer dynamics.

Constant evaluation and monitoring of performance against these KPIs (key performance indicators) is very important. This ongoing assessment ensures management focus and facilitates rapid decision-making. Occasionally tough decisions have to be made, and leaders are not here to avoid hurting people’s feelings or to doggedly stick to a failing plan, they are here to deliver ambitious targets for their business.

Agreeing a set of objectives, aligned to a long or medium-term strategy, forces a business to deploy resources efficiently and to measure outcomes in a quantitative manner. Merely promising things in order to recruit followers (like in a manifesto) can be damaging to the reputation of businesses or their leaders.

Malcolm Cannon is national director of the Institute of Directors Scotland