New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.”
—John Locke

Evolution (noun)
1. Any process of formation or growth; development;

2. A product of such development; something evolved;

3. A process of gradual, peaceful, progressive change or development, as in social or economic structure or institutions.

Evolve (verb)
1 To develop gradually;

2 To come forth gradually into being; develop; undergo evolution.

“Financial planning” has evolved considerably since Loren Dunton and his 12 cohorts gathered in that Chicago hotel way back in 1969 and founded the movement we are now calling “financial planning.” These men had strong visions of the future, including the establishment of an academic institution and the evolution of a new, credentialed profession based on combining established categories of personal financial products. Initially, they called it “financial counseling,” a term rejected by the SEC. Then they turned to “financial planning.” It stuck.

These men were brilliant and courageous visionaries, but I doubt even they could have possibly foreseen what would emerge from that meeting in terms of impact and implication. From that humble beginning, they founded the College for Financial Planning, establishing what seemed to be a solid curriculum. Indeed, it was a major achievement for the times, but in retrospect we can see that it was grounded exclusively in the dominant categories of personal financial products circa 1969.

The college offered courses in insurance, investments, taxes, retirement planning, employee benefits and estate planning, and its ostensible purpose was in qualifying an individual as a “certified financial planner” or “CFP.” Not coincidentally, these categories each represented financial products. Initially, there wasn’t much to define “financial planning” as such, including its mission and purpose. Was it a product delivery system or a fiduciary profession? Reasonable people thought differently, and we have been fighting about it ever since.

Here is the thing: Time does not stand still. Evolution is about survival through time. As we live life through time, these questions of survival and possibilities are in front of us. Evolution happens. The next logical questions then become, “What might be?” and “What should be?”

These questions are not intended to make any of us feel comfortable. Yet it is in the nature of a learned profession that we must ask them now and then ask them again. Otherwise we just stay fixed in place like insects in amber. The things that seem to be missing from our thoughtful considerations are expansive views of “financial planning’s” potentialities. Continuing essentially exclusive attachments to product-based 1969 categories is likely to stick us with partial approaches toward “financial planning’s” ongoing evolution and its mission and purpose. It seems a shame that these embryonic issues should continue to dominate relevant conversations about the collective futures of fiduciary advisors.

For now, I suggest that “financial planning” is at one of those inflection points where we risk losing critical elements of our profession’s potential forever. Specifically, “financial planning” is being stifled within the constraints necessarily imposed by the limitations of those financial products categories. We need to give careful collective thought to all that could be if we are to put “financial planning” in a position to best serve expansive, future-think views of its mission and purpose.

Let’s address some basic assumptions. First, I am putting “financial planning” in quotation marks because of the term’s imprecision. It means so many different things to so many different people that it just communicates badly. Google it and you will be on a wild trip through financial product providers and decades-old assumptions. Even Wikipedia punts on specific definitions.

Next, we have to deal with reality. Industry has been moving aggressively to claim the term. Worse, via multi-million-dollar ad campaigns, Industry continually suggests that its individual companies are “go to” destinations for “financial planning.” This means “financial planning” is increasingly promoted in manners that confuse, even mislead. Specifically, going full circle, “financial planning” is increasingly conflated with product sales, especially insurance and investments. Unfortunately, this means “financial planning” increasingly ignores the infinite combinations of issues that do not necessarily engage financial products or move directly toward a financial product sale.

Clearly, financial products are vital to any successful “financial plan.” No quarrel. Unfortunately, financial product conversations suck all the oxygen out of the room. This means those sales-side conversations run roughshod over all the other aspects of our profession. It’s the “golden rule”: Financial products are perceived to have generated the gold, therefore they control the rules.

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