Strengthen Your Strategic Thinking Muscles

Strengthen Your Strategic Thinking Muscles

Source: Harvard Business Review

by Liane Davey  |   1:00 PM January 21, 2014

Have you been told that you need to be more strategic? Whether through 360 feedback or after a failed promotion attempt, being told that you aren’t strategic enough really stings. Worse is when you try to clarify what “more strategic” would look like and get few tangible suggestions.

Being more strategic doesn’t mean making decisions that affect the whole organization or allocating scarce budget dollars. It requires only that you put the smallest decision in the context of the organization’s broader goals. Nurturing a relationship, such as one that could provide unique insight into a supplier, a customer, or a competitor is highly strategic. Everyone has an opportunity to think more strategically.

If you’re not being seen as enough of a strategic thinker, my guess is that it’s because you’re so busy. What percentage of your workweek is spent in meetings? How much of the time left over is a mad dash to respond to emails, make phone calls, and do some actual work? Is there anything left? Under the guise of productivity, you have probably squeezed out thinking time. The result is decisions that are based more on reflex than on reflection.  The risk of reflexive, knee-jerk decisions is that they tend to be based on what has worked before. That would be fine if our world was static, but it is not.  Your industry, your competitors, your customers are changing at an unprecedented rate. Doing what you’ve always done can be as risky (or more risky) as trying a new and unproven approach.

In this context, it’s critically important to make time to reflect before making decisions. What is involved? Who is involved? What is at stake? What is the opportunity and what are the risks?  What at first seems like an opportunity might reveal significant risk and what seemed risky at first might reveal a significant opportunity.

Your other response to your harried life might be to make a list of things to accomplish, put your head down and get things done. But focusing too narrowly restricts your chance to be strategic. Strategic people create connections between ideas, plans, and people that others fail to see.

A senior banking executive was looking for a new IT vendor for operations in the Caribbean when he learned that another department was working on new customer service standards. His default reaction was to just carry on.  But that would have been a lost opportunity to marry the system requirements with the new service standards, which allowed the marriage of better protocols for customer interactions with more efficient and effective data available in real time.

And remember, relationships are strategic too. The executive asked the new IT vendor to introduce him to other clients who had already implemented their new systems. He had the chance to ask questions about the vendor and how to optimize the contract and the relationship.

Strategic people see the world as a web of interconnected ideas and people and they find opportunities to advance their interests at those connection points.

But a person who reflects on situations and connects ideas and people still has one problem: it isn’t possible to do everything! Possibilities are unlimited; time, money, and resources are not. That necessitates the ability and willingness to make choices. In famous Renaissance group research, failure to focus on a few key strategies contributed to the failure to execute strategy.

Making choices, both about what you will do and what you won’t, it is a critical part of being strategic.  Closing one door in favor of another requires the courage to take action (for which you could later be blamed) and confidence to abandon an alternative (which could be a missed opportunity). It is at the point of choice that your ability to be strategic is finally tested.  It isn’t without risks, but the risk of not choosing, of spreading limited resources over too many options is greater.

You will be seen as more strategic if you take action and course-correct than if you choose to stagnate and doing nothing or stall from trying to do everything.

You don’t need a new title, more control, or bigger budgets to be more strategic; you just need to be more deliberate in your thoughts and actions.  By investing time and energy to reflect on the situations and decisions that face you; by finding ways to connect ideas and people that you had never linked before; and by having the courage to make choices about what you will do and what you won’t, you will greatly increase your strategic contribution.  Soon people will be looking at you differently, calling on you more often, and maybe even giving you that promotion you’ve been hoping for.