There are two ways into the future: one step at a time, and in giant leaps.

One step at a time is the way most of us get there, accumulating small changes as we go until we look up at some point and discover that we've come to a time and place that's completely different from where we started -- and often not exactly where we want to be. It's our future, though, and we're stuck with it.

As we take those thousands of single steps into the future, we imagine that geniuses and visionaries are leaping there in a single bound. Their talent, it seems, allows them to skip all the intermediary steps, and go right from imagining the future to living in it.

The fact is, though, that visionaries and geniuses don't skip all the intermediary steps. They get to the future one step a time, just like the rest of us -- but they get there faster because they know where they're going. And they know where they're going because they've taken a few significant leaps before they set out.

The leaps are those of imagination: They leap forward to their ideal future, and then plot out the steps to get there, which means fewer missteps, fewer blind alleys and less meandering.

You can do the same thing.

OK, you may not imagine a genius-level future, but you can definitely set a vision of where you want to be in, say, five years, and then work backwards to figure out which steps to take to get there (and which to avoid). Too few business owners -- too few people in general -- are willing to make these kinds of imaginary leaps. But they're invaluable: With them, you can look beyond your own feet to create a roadmap to your future, complete with milestones.

I'll admit that this is all a little vaporous, but I can make it more concrete. Take a look at our Spotlight on the "Firm of the Future" on page 8, and read what our virtual roundtable thinks the successful accounting practice of five years from now might look like. Then ask yourself these questions:

In five years, what will my firm look like? Is it a boutique? A one-stop shop? A growing regional giant, or a flourishing local practice? Is it a cutting-edge virtual consultancy? Who's running it with you? Who will be running it after you?

In five years, what will your clients look like? Assume you could build a client roster from scratch - who would be on it? Would it be all ultra-high-net-worth entrepreneurs? Major nonprofit institutions? Only Fortune 1000 companies? The small businesses that are the backbone of your community? Who do you want to work for, and with?

In five years, what will your job look like? Do you see yourself in a different role? Something more managerial, for instance -- or more into business development? Will it be mobile and on the road all the time? Will you be offering clients the same services, or do you want to branch out into new areas? Or do you imagine yourself not having a job at all? That last may be the hardest to plan for of all.

Once you start answering these questions, both for yourself and for your firm, for a time frame that's sufficiently far into the future, you can start planning how to get there. That's important to bear in mind as you think about your future: You'll still have to walk there. It can't be all spaceships and moon colonies; you will eventually need to find a way to get there from here.

In the end, though, a few thoughtful leaps now can save a thousand wasted steps in the future.

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