According to research, the biggest challenge people face in trying to act strategically is being able to concentrate on the future and find unique, breakthrough ideas that add value to their organizations. The problem, it seems, is finding time, energy, skill, and, most importantly, the discipline to break loose from the daily “activity magnet.”
If people can’t find some degree of calm in their lives, they simply won’t be able improve their strategic activities, and without strategic activities, strategic advantage isn’t possible.
Today’s business climate is so caught up in “act now” or “win today” thinking that few people are able to escape from the intense pressure of their daily requirements. Yet this is exactly what is needed for people to be able to act more strategically. Research has found that the more pressure people are under in terms of needing to take quick and accurate action, the less time they tend to invest in planning for future possibilities.
Another way of understanding this phenomenon is to think about the difference between working efficiently and working effectively. Workers can be incredibly efficient while performing the wrong responsibilities. Being effective means doing what is right, not only for the current situation, but also for situations in the future.
The value of shaping the future isn’t appreciated in some circles. Many parts of the business world place a great deal of value on tactical efficiency, often at the expense of future success. The clear fact is that the business world has created something affectionately called the “operational beast.” In addition, the culture of an organization has the potential to propagate the beast through pressure that causes people to be reactionary rather than allowing them to plan for the future and create more effective systems and methods.
It’s possible for a person’s personal comfort level with the familiar, or the perceived security of the status quo, to become an efficiency trap that enables the beast to swallow the person in a dearth of tasks and activities. In other words, beyond an organization’s culture overemphasizing constant activity, the workers’ personal preferences can also become an activity magnet.
In their book, Ahead of the Curve, authors Dr. Steven J. Stowell and Stephanie S. Mead describe the activity beast as an 800-pound beast clinging to the back of every very busy person. The authors say, “Becoming more strategic is a lot like a rocket trying to blast off to escape the earth’s gravitational pull.
It takes a lot of force to break away, but once you have, you are able to see a whole new perspective on your world.” Elevating one’s perspective above the worker’s trench improves the likelihood that a person will have the opportunity to think and act more strategically.
The authors describe five factors that combine to make it difficult for people to escape the grip of the activity beast. The first factor is complacency. Larry Hodges, former Chairman of Mrs. Fields’ Cookies, used a slogan in many of his meetings: “Good enough never is.” When people come to believe that good enough is good enough, they not only stop looking for ways to perform tasks more efficiently, they also stop looking for ways to become more effective in the future. Mr. Hodges’ admonition was his way of helping his employees see the danger in being complacent.
The second factor is the manner in which people deal with difficulties. People can become impatient when they encounter problems or struggles in their day-to-day work. As a result, they may respond to these situations with knee-jerk reactions and quick fixes, which can hinder the development of the discipline it takes to think deeply and explore new or innovative possibilities.
Strategic thinkers avoid overanalyzing causes and conducting extensive diagnoses about why things are going wrong. Instead of focusing solely on the causes, they also spend some time considering new approaches that could lead to an entirely different, more-productive future. The key is to notice how workers respond to repetitive tactical problems or difficult situations. Knee-jerk thinking or “analysis paralysis” can feed the beast on your back.
The third factor is fighting fires. Managers need to be good fire fighters. Many managers find personal satisfaction in being able to rescue situations and appear heroic to peers, subordinates, and customers. Indeed, being able to successfully fight a fire can be a very rewarding experience; it’s exciting, and it makes people feel successful. The problem is that when an organization encourages this behavior by rewarding or paying too much attention to the individuals fighting these fires, it often results in producing situations that will require more fires to be fought.
In other words, this can become a self-perpetuating process. This combination of factors can make it difficult for managers to look beyond the blazing fires and see the future. Managers must give themselves permission to stop fighting fires and consider what strategic actions could prevent these blazes from starting in the first place.
The fourth factor is the climate or environment of the organization. An organization’s norms, values, or management philosophy may discourage people from thinking or acting strategically. People are often told, “Thinking ahead is the responsibility of upper management. You need to pay attention to your job.”
When the organization’s climate notices, recognizes, and rewards people for thinking about the future, workers are more prone to think and act strategically. Conversely, when the organization sends the message that strategic behavior is reserved for (and expected of) a select few people—the people in corner offices on the top floor—workers are less prone to care about or act in ways that will benefit the future success of the organization.
The fifth factor is the tendency to “wing it.” Some people are naturally spontaneous and able to “wing” things. Indeed, some people, whether
by practice or natural ability, even “wing” things very well. These people are talented and fly by the seat of their pants. They rarely need to anticipate, plan, think, or act outside the box because they have developed the talent of spontaneous repair. When an organization accumulates a number of people, especially in management, who are adept at winging it, the organizational culture can focus on tactical repair, rather than on strategic prevention, innovation, and creation. These are the companies that typically have a short lifespan, because strategic competition can outdistance them over time.
So what’s the solution to taming the beast? The good news is that the beast actually can be tamed; the bad news is that taming it takes discipline and hard work, and it’s not an easy thing to do. Everyday responsibilities still need to be dealt with. Acting more strategically doesn’t mean you can stop doing the things that must get done each day.
Getting those things done is what keeps people employed. Taming the beast requires the discipline to mentally step back from those tactical responsibilities and have a conversation about the future. The conversation can be with yourself, mentor, team member, coach, or trusted advisor, but it’s in the disciplined conversation about the future that creativity and innovation begin. And it’s in that beginning that ultimate strategic advantage can result.
Tame The Beast™ is a trademark of CMOE.