What If Strategic Thinking Is Different Than What You Think?
Most leaders see themselves as strategic thinkers. Few are. In fact, most leaders wouldn’t be able to define what strategic thinking is.
This isn’t a knock on leaders.
People use the word strategy all the time. It’s so common, assume we know what it means.
If someone is visionary or a “big picture thinker” we might call them strategic. We host strategy retreats. Write strategic plans.
But most people couldn’t tell you what the strategy actually is.
Why does this matter? Why does it matter a lot?
The Value of Strategic Thinking
Early 2020, I was on a vacation with my family. We were out of the country and off the grid.
While we were gone, COVID showed up. Like an unexpected break-in and entry. Only the thief wouldn’t leave.
Arriving back in the US was like landing in a different country.
The initial panic had just started. Stores were empty. People had weird looks in their eyes.
My plans for the year — out the window. The same was true for my clients.
But I never changed my strategy. Neither did the majority of my clients (although some made a few adjustments).
Catch that? Plans changed. Strategy didn’t.
And because the strategy didn’t need to change — it was easy to adapt plans to a new situation.
The result? Most of my clients not only survived 2020 — they had their best year ever.
Plans change. But (well developed) strategy rarely needs to. Good strategy guides you through the unexpected. Making decisions becomes easier and faster. Conflict is reduced or avoided.
OK — So What is Strategy?
Strategy is a framework for making decisions or setting goals. It’s a framework based on defined values and priorities.
It’s a priority-setting/decision-filtering/activity-aligning tool.
Most of the world discovered in 2020 that everything can change overnight.
For organizations that had a sound strategy — it was relatively simple to adjust their plans. They didn’t need to rethink who they were, what they offered, and how.
They didn’t need to wait until “everything got back to normal”. They just adapted how to execute their current strategy and kept moving ahead.
Strategic Framework Guide
Your strategy should be informed by these four simple things.
- Your values and vision: Whatever priorities or approaches you take are informed by your values and the vision you are trying to build. They create direction, purpose, and alignment.
- Your near-term focus: Your vision is off in the future. What is the most important step forward that you can take this year (or whatever time frame that makes sense)? What should you tightly focus on now?
- Your priorities in terms of opportunities: What are the primary opportunities (usually 1–3) that add the most traction to your ability to achieve your focus? How will you recognize them? What do you need to do to take advantage of them?
- Your priorities in terms of risk mitigation: What are the primary threats or risks (usually 1–3) that could undermine your ability to achieve your focus? How will you recognize them? What do you need to do to avoid or mitigate their impact?
Everything after this is planning. Which is good. It’s difficult to execute without a plan. But plans can and often should change. Plans are not strategy.
Attributes of Good Strategy
Good strategy is useful and produces results. Here are the qualities of good (and bad) strategy:
- Values and vision are real and meaningful: Your values and vision are the backbone of good strategy. They should come from sharp self-awareness of what actually is most important to your organization and the future you actually want to build. The more honest and compelling both are, the more effective they are.
Bad strategy either lacks clear values & vision or it lacks integrity because not enough leaders model the values or believe in the vision.
- Create and Protect Alignment: Everything about your strategy needs to be aligned. It all needs to “fit” with each other. The vision should reflect the values. Your focus should be clearly connected to both. Your priorities should support your focus. Life, urgencies, distractions, and opportunities can all take you out of alignment. Actively create and protect staying aligned.
Bad strategy is a jumble of good-sounding thoughts relabeled as “values” or “priorities”. They may not support each other. They may even conflict with each other.
- Clear & Simple: Keeping your strategy clear and simple increases the likelihood that everyone understands it. The easier it is to understand, the more likely it is to be executed.
Bad strategy is either ambiguous or complicated. No one can describe it to you — they just point at a binder and say “that’s our strategy.”
- Productive: It should produce the results. Seems obvious, but it can be easy to fall in love with a strategy at the expense of results. Just watch politics.
Bad strategy doesn’t manifest the stated values nor move you towards your vision. It doesn’t produce.
During the height of PPP loan chaos in 2020, a new executive was overwhelmed and confused about a major decision. I knew the company had put a lot of work into developing a good strategy before she was hired.
I referred her to it. She argued with me saying, “That stuff doesn’t work.”
Under protest, she pulled out the single sheet of paper that held their strategy. I asked her to use that framework to think through the challenge she faced.
Within three minutes the way forward was obvious to her.
Your strategy should be like a well-worn tool in your tool belt. Carry it with you. Use it often.
Take good care,
Originally published at https://www.christianmuntean.com on June 1, 2021.