STRATEGIC THINKING is about heading in a smart direction with a clear destination in mind. It’s best done in large, diverse groups.
Winning organizations may or may not have the deepest pockets, or the latest and greatest tools, or even the most educated people. But invariably they have one thing in common—leaders who Think Together strategically about their challenges and opportunities and rapidly act on their insights.
Since strategic thinking is the key to a sustainable success, it’s logical to assume that leaders in every organization would make this their top priority. Yet very few leaders spend more than cursory time in this critical area. In their book, Competing for The Future, Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad estimated that senior leaders spend less than three percent of their time to thinking strategically.
Why is strategic thinking is so rare?
We are conditioned our whole lives to think tactically. Cross the street without paying attention or you get run over. Learn the assigned set of facts or fail the test. When we enter the professional world, we find that our career success depends on doing the job at hand.
Tactics are the observable activities that can deliver immediate results—making sales calls, managing budgets, maintaining equipment, hiring and firing. The list goes on. Tactics also include some less obvious activities, such as putting out fires and making quick fixes to the bottom line (that can lead to unintended consequences).
Unfortunately, most people who rise to leadership never make the leap from tactical thinking to strategic thinking. They simply take the tactical lessons they’ve learned over their career and apply them at the strategic level.
Addressing broad, long-term issues requires time away from the day-to-day tactical activities that most leaders are comfortable with. Strategic thinking is often viewed as “theoretical.” The practical leader rolls up their sleeves and does “real work”—making something happen now!
It’s not easy to rise above short-term tactical urgencies to focus on what is truly important for sustainable success. This is bad news for organizations in general, but offers a golden opportunity for those leaders who “get it.”
Focus on shaping winning strategies. This will pay huge dividends, whether you’re leading in a small or a large enterprise.
21st Century Leadership Lesson: Dime or Dollar Choice
My favorite example of smart strategic thinking is the story about a six-year-old girl whose teenage brother thought she was a dimwit because every time he gave her the choice between a shiny new dime and an old crumpled dollar, she chose the dime.
The brother thought this was so hilarious that, whenever his friends were around, he entertained them by offering his younger sister the dime-or-dollar choice. He did this over and over, month after month.
One day the father noticed what was happening. Concerned, he took his young daughter aside and said, “Angel, don’t you understand that the dollar is worth ten times as much as the dime.”
She smiled sweetly. “Of course, I do Daddy. But if I ever take the dollar he’ll stop giving me the dimes.”
The little girl knew what her brother believed. He was smarter than everyone else, especially his younger, dumb sister. So her strategy was simply“play dumb” (as long as it was in her best interest to do so). She was thinking long term and could see that the cumulative effects of playing dumb would pay off for her. She’d end up with a lot of dimes!
Was she consciously aware of all of this? Probably not. But she was certainly thinking strategically.
Pursue Principles for 21st Century Leadership
A principle is a fundamental truth that explains how to get results in a particular situation.
Consider the adventurous family who decided to go backpacking in the Alaska wilderness (this is a true story). With a little investigation, they found that the area had a large population of grizzly bears.
Since they had never been around grizzly bears before and were rightly concerned about their safety, the family visited the National Park Service for a presentation on “Safety in Bear Country.” The Park Ranger strongly emphasized again, and again, a key fact about grizzly bears: if surprised, they can be very dangerous. He concluded with a succinct statement of the important action principle: “MAKE NOISE!”
The principle “Make noise!” provides a clear guideline for ensuring your safety in bear country—a potentially dangerous environment.
Likewise, the Think Strategically action principles below are guidelines for leadership in our 21st-century VUCA environment, which is characterized by conditions of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.
Three Action Principles for Thinking Strategically
Principle One — See The Big Picture — is about CONTEXT.
The purpose of this principle is to develop and maintain realistic situational awareness of your own organization, customers, and market, as well as the wider world. The benefit is avoiding the narrow perspectives and blind spots that can lead to bad decisions, missed opportunities, and unintended consequences.
You can See The Big Picture by assessing current conditions, exploring trend dynamics, and identifying critical strategic Issues. These three steps will help you build a broad base of knowledge of your organization, your industry and the world in general, against which you can evaluate individual pieces of information when you make strategic decisions.
Remeber this Fish Story: The strategic thinking fish asks another fish “how’s the water?” The other fish replies, “what the heck is water?” The point is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, and important conditions that surround us are often the hardest to see.
Principle Two — Design Your Future Picture — is about DIRECTION.
The purpose of this principle is to establish a high-level navigational aid, a constant beacon toward which everyone in the organization can steer over time. The benefit is building strategic unity across the organization and avoiding knee-jerk responses that often compound problems.
You can Design Your Future Picture by crafting a clear, compelling description of the future state you intend to create by a specific date (e.g. January 1st, 20xx). Then, further clarify your description by defining the success measures that will let you know when you have arrived.
Principle Three — Practice Winning Behaviors —is about PERFORMANCE.
The Future Picture is what you intend to accomplish, but it is the alignment of this intention with your organization’s people performance that ultimately ensures your success. Think about it. The Future Picture is a compelling idea, but it is only realized through the day-to-day behaviors of everyone in the organization. That is why the purpose of the third strategic action principle is to design and build an organizational culture that can do what it takes to achieve the Future Picture.
You can Practice Winning Behaviors by avoiding self-deceit, knowing what it takes to win, and ensuring a feedback-friendly environment. These three steps will help you choose the behaviors you need to stop, start and/or improve, as well as embed them into your organization’s DNA.
Antidotes to Strategic Thinking Sucess Obstacles
Each of the foregoing principles is an antidote to a common obstacle to effective strategic thinking.
© 2016-2017 Leland Russell | All Rights Reserved