The topic of strategic thinking is becoming more and more common in almost every industry. Many reasons surround this, but the most important of those reasons is that CEOs and other executive-level leaders are realizing that everyone in the business—even individual contributors on the front lines of the organization—can contribute to the overall organization strategy and provide distinctive, long-term value to the business in their own way.
However, most people, and even some executives, are unfamiliar with the topic of strategy and are often unsure what their organization’s strategy is, if there is one. Yet, most are hungry for direction and basic know-how regarding how to think strategically, create long-term value, and contribute to the execution of the strategy. The “Being Strategic” Model can help these people to not only play a role in the overall organization strategy, but to also create a strategy around their job responsibilities.
The Three Parts of the “Being Strategic” Model
Like so many words in the English language, the word being has many uses and connotations. Of the eight definitions of the word provided by Dictionary.com, only five apply to the “Being Strategic” Model. Those are:
- The fact of existing; existence (as opposed to nonexistence).
- Substance or nature
- Something that exists
- That which has actuality either materially or in idea
- Absolute existence in a complete or perfect state, lacking no essential characteristic; essence.[i]
In other words, the word being implies a requirement for action, or to be in the state of doing. The three phases of The “Being Strategic” Model are action-oriented and include:
While strategy is very much about action, the “thinking” element is a crucial aspect of being a strategic contributor. Without the forethought and intelligence behind it, you can get caught just acting for acting’s sake and miss windows of opportunity that are on the horizon that will shape a better future. Let’s take a closer look at each area of the model and how these dimensions are crucial to becoming a strategic force in business and in life.
I. Learning From the Past
Real-life experiences (RLEs) are worth more than a stack of books and magazines that gather dust as they wait to be read. The past can be a great teacher, if you are willing to learn the lessons it can teach. The importance of understanding how your path led you to where you are now cannot be understated. Ask yourself a few questions:
- What is your current situation (the environment)?
- What is expected of you (from above you, from yourself, and from below you in the organization chart)?
- What do you expect to achieve in your current position?
- What helped you to be successful in the past?
- How can your past successes help you to create future successes out of the trends and changes you can see on the horizon?
Answering these questions will help bring past learning into clearer focus to help you become more strategic in the way you approach future challenges and opportunities.
All of your RLEs can be used to benefit everyone that reports to you. You can help your direct reports make connections with their responsibilities that will save them a lot of time and energy, thus shortening their learning curve and allowing them to spend that saved time and energy benefitting the organization.
Take lessons from your past and use them to train your people. Both you and they will know that what you teach them works in the real world because of the source of information: your RLEs. As they follow your advice and find that those lessons really help improve their work life, your credibility will increase and they will seek your advice more and more often.
On the other hand, your direct reports possess RLEs that will definitely benefit the organization as a whole, and themselves as individuals fulfilling their responsibilities. As you become better at learning from your past, teach your direct reports to do the same so they will become more strategic in their roles.
Many college graduates leave their alma maters with absolutely no intent to crack another book again in their lives. However, the importance of continuing your education—especially where your career is concerned—is vitally important in the current economy. Continuing your education at the executive level is just as important as it was when you were working your way up through the ranks. Avoid feeling a sense of “arrival”—that because you fill an executive-level position in Corporate America, you have it all figured out and there is nothing left for you to learn.
That said, to this point in your career, you have likely overcome at least a few huge obstacles, taken great strides in your skill set, and are a much wiser person for it. Because of all of that experience—all of that past learning—you not only have the responsibility to keep going with it, you also have a responsibility to share it with others.
Thinking and learning go together, like green eggs and ham, or pancakes and syrup. Where there is one, you will likely find the other. Henry Ford said: “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.” It is a skill that must be developed. Strategic thinking can be even more difficult if you are unfamiliar with the process. It involves several different but interrelated skills that allow you to focus on each of the different aspects of strategy creation.
Organization executives, whether they have had formal training in strategy creation or not, either use all of these skills intuitively, they use some of them because they learned them, or they use none of them at all. Regardless of where you stand, brushing up on the following skills will invariably help you build your strategic muscle.
Before you do anything else, you must determine what you are aiming at. You need a goal, a purpose, or a target to aim for. You need to know where you want to end up so you will know when you have arrived. This will require you to slow down, step away from your action list, and think about how to best invest your time, energy, and resources in order to create your unique strategic advantage. Stowell and Mead developed a tool called the Personal Strategic Dashboard[ii] to help you create an outline:
- Customers—Those people that use what you produce (internal, external, or both)
- People—Those who will affect or be affected by your strategic target(s)
- Products—The deliverables/outputs you produce
- Resources—Inputs; what you have to work with
- Processes—Activities, procedures, practices, methods, etc. you use to get results
- You—Everything going on with you personally; the results or position you’d like to achieve
- Sponsors/Stakeholders—Those investing in or invested in the success of your organization
It is very possible that your strategic dashboard will look different than the one above. Make any changes to it that you deem necessary by adding or replacing them as needed.
To be able to make good, informed decisions, one required reliable data—the kind of reliable data that can be gathered from sources over a long period of time. Because information gathering is so key to strategic thinking and planning, it is vitally important that you keep an eye on your data sources at all times.
This isn’t a once-and-done activity. You must gather strategic data on a regular basis. Your position and industry will dictate the interval you should follow, whether it is monthly, weekly, daily, or more often than that. Keep your mind open while observing data. Notice changes and anomalies in the data, and the frequency with which these anomalies occur, and work that new information into your strategic activity immediately.
Every worthy goal has associated with it forces that work to its benefit and to its downfall. As an executive-level organization leader, you must analyze these forces and make further changes to the strategic plan as needed. Your environment will tell you all you need to know if you remain in tune with it. Do not bury your head in the sand and ignore what you see in the environment and in the data you gather.
When you get really good at interpreting data and the environment, you will notice possible threats and tailwinds regarding your goals. Analyze this information in order to determine whether or not threats are real and if tailwinds actually exist. Take advantage of the tailwinds that come your way and minimize or avoid exposure to threats as much as possible.
While threats and tailwinds come from the outside environment, strengths and limitations are internal and can be utilized now. Each member of your team possesses a specific strengths-and-limitations profile that adds value to the strategic plan. These strengths and limitations are always available to you, literally right at your fingertips, at your disposal at a moment’s notice.
They are directly controlled by you (your own strengths and limitations) and ready for deployment (by your team members) very quickly. When you know your team well, all you need to do is balance strengths and limitations in a strategic area to gain momentum. Creating a strengths and limitations profile of your team will add immeasurable value to your strategic purpose.
The next step is to define different scenarios based on the information gathered above. A scenario[iii] is “an imagined or projected sequence of events, especially any of several detailed plans or possibilities” based on the data gathered and your scan of the environment. The point of attempting to define future scenarios is to try to predict how events will unfold. In doing so, you essentially make an educated guess regarding what the future holds for you, your position, and your department or organization.
Educated guesswork is valuable because you can create contingency plans and add them to the overall organization strategy in order to preserve successes when failures occur. The two most obvious scenarios are the worst-case and the best-case scenarios. There is a third, called the alternative scenario that is widely ignored.
This class of scenario encompasses those outcomes that are unusual or surprising. Because alternative scenarios are more difficult to visualize, scenario building tends to begin with the worst-case scenario and end with the best case scenario. Putting forth the extra effort to visualize alternative scenarios pays off when an outcome can’t be classified as either best-case or worst-case, but somewhere in between.
Mapping a course of action is neither exact, nor is it a science. It is, however, based on intelligence, experience, scenarios, and all of the rest of the work put into the strategy-making process to this point. An action map simply lines out who will do what, when, where, how, and to what extent. Numerous sub- and sub-sub-maps will round out the overall action map.
After the map is created, everyone that has a part to play in the strategy will know exactly what their role is, what their responsibilities include, and when their contribution to the strategy begins and ends. After all of this work is completed, the organization can use their new strategic plan as a decision filter that will make trade-offs easier to make. That alone is enough to make the effort worthwhile. But before that can happen, the plan must be put into action.
Throughout history, great leaders and thinkers have sung the praises of action, from ancient China, throughout the middle ages, into modern business.
“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.”—Confucius
“Pleasure and action make the hours seem short.” —William Shakespeare
“An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
“There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.” —John F. Kennedy
“Remember, a real decision is measured by the fact that you’ve taken new action. If there’s no action, you haven’t truly decided.” —Tony Robbins
“An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.” —Jack Welch
Simply put, no amount of strategic planning at any level in the organization will do anyone any good unless it is mobilized, put into action, and implemented throughout the ranks. There are four key aspects to smart action:
Acting on a strategy can be a scary thing, and no amount of preparation can or will completely remove the butterflies felt right before pulling the trigger. That is normal. The intelligence you gather may not be perfect. It is absolutely impossible to know what the future holds. Acting on a strategy requires faith—in yourself and the leader, in your team, and in the plan itself.
When implementing a strategy, it must be done quickly. Holding back, or taking it slow, will open the plan up to barriers and road blocks which will inevitably cause problems. “The advantage goes to those who can execute strategic actions early and quickly. Those who are both fearless and nimble are a formidable force.”[iv] Get in there and start getting things done, now.
One of my favorite fictional characters is Bilbo Baggins from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Before Frodo begins his adventure, Bilbo confesses to him that he wishes to go, but he is simply too tired. Bilbo then says something very applicable to the concentration aspect of acting on a strategy: “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” Concentration requires acting when it is the right time and with the right amount of force. You cannot act on every aspect of the strategy all at once or you will spread yourself too thin and wear yourself out too quickly. Concentration is acting on specific parts of the plan only when it is time to do so.
Finally, as the leader of your strategic movement, you must finish what you start. New initiatives are usually met with a whole lot of excitement in the beginning that fizzles out over time. As the leader, it is your job to sustain the excitement, the momentum, and the action. If you don’t, all of the effort put into planning was for nothing, and that is wasteful.
Most organizations cannot afford waste in any form. Like a new apple tree, it takes time for the fruit of new strategies to come forth. In the meantime, you have to nurture the tree, water it, fertilize it, and give it due attention. If you cannot do this—if you cannot sustain the effort required for the strategy to bear fruit—it is actually better not to start the process in the first place.
[i] being. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/being (accessed: October 17, 2012).
[ii] Steven Stowell, and Stephanie Mead, Ahead of the Curve: A Guide to Applied Strategic Thinking, (Salt Lake City, UT: CMOE Press, 2005), 45-143.
[iii] scenario. Dictionary.com. Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/scenario (accessed: October 29, 2012).
[iv] Steven Stowell, and Stephanie Mead, Ahead of the Curve: A Guide to Applied Strategic Thinking, (Salt Lake City, UT: CMOE Press, 2005), 41.