wooden dominos knocked over with a lightbulb in the middle

Strategic thinking has become one of the most valued skills in managers, and many organizations know that strategic thinking is integral to their success. Unfortunately, managers often run into challenges that prevent them from engaging in strategic thought and action with consistency and regularity.

Let’s take a look at three stumbling blocks managers often encounter so we can better understand how to help them overcome these challenges.

1. Misalignment in the Organization

According to research from Harvard Business Review, 95% of employees in large organizations are either unaware of or don’t understand the strategies of the companies they work for. This is the most prevalent stumbling block to managers being more strategic in their work. In another Harvard Business Review study, companies with well-articulated strategies on average outperformed competitors by 304% in profits, 332% in sales, and 883% in shareholder returns. Why? Because there is greater engagement and commitment from leaders and individual contributors when they know what the strategy is and how they link and align to the plan to win.

When there is a lack of clarity about what the organization, business unit, functional area, and/or department is working towards, strategic alignment quickly breaks down because managers don’t have a strategic line of sight for their efforts related to strategic thinking and action. It is difficult for managers to come up with new ideas that will create long-term value and define a strategic-contribution concept without information. Other research shows that people not only want to understand what the strategy is, they also want to know how they can contribute to it. This means that everyone in the organization needs to understand how they fit and why they matter when it comes to the future direction of the organization.

Leaders have a significant impact on strategy being pushed down and throughout the organization; they are the catalysts for cascading a strategy. When leaders know where to direct their strategic thinking and enroll people in the process for reaching those goals, the organization will achieve meaningful results and competitive advantage.

2. Managing a Level Down

Most managers cite a “lack of time” as one of the major factors that prevents them from being more strategic. Upon closer examination, the lack of time typically stems from managers failing to manage at their level. This occurs when a manager performs the tasks or work that should or could be done by someone else (such as a team member that reports to them) rather than focusing on their own leadership roles, responsibilities, and tasks. It is easy for a leader to get pulled into day-to-day operational demands. Sometimes leaders will jump in and solve problems or do tasks that they think they can do faster or better than other team members. They may even think that they are helping when, in fact, their actions can actually reduce productivity and negatively impact team morale. While it’s ineffective for most everyone involved, there is a natural tendency for people to manage a level down. This can happen in every part and at every level of the organization.

overworked employee sitting at desk with stacks of binders

Not managing at the right level has a significant impact on a leader’s ability to manage their time and productivity and ultimately affects their capacity to spend time on strategic thinking and planning. To create time and space for strategic thought and action, managers need to empower others by delegating regularly and allowing them to do the work, make decisions, resolve issues, handle consequences, and learn from the experience. When they manage at the appropriate level, managers are able to more effectively balance being focused on the big picture and operations.

3. Lacking Skills and Tools

For some, thinking ahead of the curve comes very naturally—but for most managers, strategic thinking and planning is a practice that needs to be developed. A growing number of organizations are discovering how crucial it is to have more leaders at all levels of the business thinking in a long-term, proactive way. There is an appetite for insights into the characteristics of proactive, strategic leaders and how to develop those capabilities. People are grasping for practical solutions to these challenges. The trouble is that managers don’t always have access to high-quality training, coaching, and tools that will help them manage short-term, day-to-day routines and execute on long-term priorities.

The first, simple step is helping managers change their mindset from “strategy isn’t my job” to “strategy is an important part of my job.” Then, organizations must be willing to provide the resources managers need to develop their strategic thinking and planning competencies. This should include learning and development solutions that establish a shared language and approach to strategy and equip leaders at all levels with practical tools and a fundamental process to follow.

The simple truth is that the future won’t be any different from the way things are now if leaders do the same things in the same way. To win, managers need to overcome the obstacles preventing them from thinking and acting strategically and planning for the future now.

Learn more about CMOE’s Applied Strategic Thinking® and Strategic Leadership programs, books, and resources. Or access the Applied Strategic Thinking® self-paced digital course and begin building your strategic-thinking competency today.

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About the Author
Stephanie Mead
Ms. Mead has experience in operations management, leadership development curriculum design, organization development consulting, and international operations. Stephanie has developed complete leadership development curriculums for some of the world’s leading organizations. Her experience also includes creating specialized learning experiences and blended learning programs aimed at maximizing human and organization performance. Stephanie has also co-authored 4 books with other CMOE consultants.

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