My experience is of a great many leaders and managers who are expert at Strategic Planning and at Strategic Execution; but not so great at Strategic Thinking. And to confuse these related-but-distinct disciplines is to deny ourselves and our organisation our best thinking; and undermine the potential success of the very strategy we’re attempting to move forward.
We know the importance and significant pay-off in finding quality thinking time for ourselves. Clarity. Vision. Insight. Cohesion. Sequencing. Calm energy. Deep motivation. The same is true for the strategy of the wider team and organisation.
And these exemplary thinking qualities are key to strategy. After all: strategy is about the ongoing processes of thought and action that create the best possible results tomorrow with the opportunities presented today. That’s only achieved through quality of thought.
Quality of thought in the Strategic Thinking process is also the primary way to guarantee the 3 key characteristics of successful strategy:
- FOCUS. Deciding where – and crucially, where NOT – to compete.
- ALIGNMENT. With and within the larger context.
- AGILITY. The ability to flex and evolve, as the climate demands
So, what disciplines and practices do we, as managers and leaders, need to embed to ensure this quality of Strategic Thinking throughout the phases of envisioning, informing and finalising the strategy, prior to execution?
Here are 8 atomic habits that we can develop to become second-nature and give us that much sought-after reputation for being a “Strategic Thinker”.
#1 Build the habit.
Create a “Strategic Thinking Habit”. Start by seeing strategic thinking as a skill that can be learnt, developed and practised. And then, make it part of your day by building an intentional practice for it. Something you do daily that has you getting better and better at thinking strategically. And something that warrants dedicated time on the calendar.
#2 Always be linking.
Always be linking everything you, the team and the department do with the higher-level strategy. Always be asking what the high-level strategy is that has led to the work we’re now doing. And how your world and your work is an expression of (some) strategy. At all times and at all levels, find routes from and back to the strategy.
#3 Maintain your one-pager.
I often ask my clients to prepare a one-pager on their strategy and the strategy of their leadership and the organisation they work for. Take time to build a simple but powerful conception of high-level strategy so your mind is filtered towards those interests, but only always. Check-in regularly with your one pager and use it to elevate your thinking to strategic levels. Have your mind play in that space.
#4 Know what NOT to do.
Always be asking of the options in front of us: what NOT to do. And of what we’re already doing, what we need to STOP doing. Strategy is as much about knowing where not to compete and which paths not to take, as it is about bullishly going after every opportunity that arises. Sustainable strategic positions require trade-offs.
#5 Work to principles.
Given the choice, develop strategic principles which are flexible adaptable, in favour of complex prescriptions with little or no room for manoeuvre. One of the greatest
#6 Distinguish the activities.
For every strategic initiative and within every strategic thinking effort, keep sharply in mind the difference between Strategic Thinking, Strategic Planning and Strategic Execution. We know logically that these are completely different pursuits; but in the heat of strategy development, the distinctions are easily forgotten and blur into one another. The most positively impactful results strategies don’t result when we allow the lines to blur: the thinking activities are just too different.
Strategy is about being different. It is the very creation of a unique and valuable position that sits apart from its competition. To do that requires invention. And this might sound obvious: but notice how the default approach is to look at what we’ve done in the past and tweak from there. That is not the level of invention that makes for a competitive strategy; it’s simply a v2 of what’s gone before. Make your core thinking principle: To come from the future. To be pure invention.
#8 Think “ecology”.
No strategic initiative exists in a vacuum, devoid of context. A crucial ingredient to exemplary strategic thinking is the ability to see a strategy’s fit within its context: how the interrelationships complement and support one another (or not); how the priorities amplify (or compete) with one another. Be the first person to see this strategy alongside its counterparts.
p.s. If you like to go deep on the topic of “Strategy”, look-up Michael E. Porter’s HBR article “What is Strategy?”
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