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The “Strategy Thing”

Converting Stumbling Blocks to Building Blocks

By Julie Benezet

Can strategic thinking be learned? Sure, if you know where to start and are mindful of the mileposts along the way.

Halfway through a two-day strategic planning retreat, a senior leadership team member nervously pulled me aside to make a painful confession. “I just can’t think strategically. I’m really good at running projects, but the strategy thing . . .”

Yes, the “strategy thing.” For many people, “strategy” is a thing from another planet. It lands during an offsite when one of those nasty consultants says, “Let’s create our strategic goals.” Or, it appears during a performance review, where you hear the words, “You have to move beyond the tactical. We need forward looking strategies that will take us into the future.”

“Forward looking. . . Ummm . . .” The lights dim, and the “strategy thing” zooms back into space, leaving the leader stuck on the ground.

What is strategic thinking?

For some people, strategic thinking comes as naturally as breathing. Turning a current situation into a future opportunity arrives effortlessly. If a customer complains repeatedly that your product instructions are obscure, the nonstrategic thinker focuses on revising the instructions to quiet down the customer complaint. While important, it misses a key chance to make a broader reaching, enduring change. The strategic thinker looks beyond redoing the instructions to ask, “What might be missing from our process of writing them that is causing this recurring problem, and what can we do so that it doesn’t happen again?” Therein lies the difference.

Strategic thinking lacks a precise definition. Peter Walsh in a Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning blog post, describes it as “thinking [that] goes beyond looking at what is — it imagines what could be.” He offers a test with several characteristics of strategic thinking: future-based, curious, long-term focus, and willing to take risks.

While I do not quibble with his characterization, for the many people who struggle with the meaning of strategy, these traits merely add more words to an already foreign language. In my work with leaders and strategy over many years, I have observed that if you cannot crack open the door by demystifying the concept of strategy, any attempt to swing the door wider fails.

A leader’s job is to come up with new ideas to address the needs of their stakeholders and deliver long term competitive value. That is the goal of strategy.

The thinking process that produces strategy begins with two fundamental questions: what core problem are you trying to solve and who are the stakeholders that will benefit from its solution?

Once you answer the what and who questions, you have opened the way to converting the needs of the “who” into new ideas to improve their lives.

Six mileposts to guide you on your strategic thinking journey

Your mission is to discover a solution to an organizational issue that will reduce the possibility of its occurrence and create long term competitive value. Below are six key mileposts to guide you along the road of strategic thinking to something better:

1. Identify the problem. Choose an issue that is causing a business or organizational failure that needs to be corrected. The issue might be a burning hot customer issue that has blown through the door. It also might be a matter that you have been avoiding because of the amount of havoc it has been causing and facing it will be stressful. Either way, the situation is ripe for a strategic solution.

2. Identify the stakeholders. Identify the group of persons affected by the issue and who stand to benefit from a strategic change. Include in your thinking the persons directly affected by the situation and the less obvious ones. For example, in the case of the failed product instructions, customers who buy the product are clearly affected. However, less clear but essential would be the people who wrote the instructions and the customer service representatives who have had to defend them.

3. Collect the (real) facts. Too often we assume we know how our stakeholders think and feel. It seems easier and more efficient than cluttering the landscape with facts. The point of strategic thinking is to clean up the clutter. Go ask open-ended questions and be prepared for people saying things you did not expect or want to hear. Ask lots of follow-on questions. Assume you don’t know the answer, because chances are you don’t. That’s why there is a problem. Strategic ideas often arise from comments we did not anticipate or come in response to questions we were afraid to ask.

4. Accept discomfort. It is likely the facts you collect will uncover problematic situations that will cause you discomfort. That’s good. It means you are asking the right questions. It also validates your hunch that you are on the front line of a critical problem that needs attention. Your questions also might result in people unloading their emotional reactions about the problem, regardless of whether you had anything to do with its creation. Hang in there. You are on your way to something better.

5. Identify the core issues. Review the information you’ve gathered. What root causes surface? For example, you might learn that customers find your product instructions too complicated, the communication style condescending, or written in a user unfriendly way, using technical terms mere mortals don’t understand and leaving out essential details needed to connect the dots. These complaints suggest a lack of knowledge of what level of guidance your customers need. It also could point to a company cultural issue that doesn’t give their feedback a high priority and inadequate training and evaluation of managers on its importance.

To solve the product instructions issue strategically, possible ideas for change might be to revise the company culture to raise the priority it places on customer input and then build processes that imbed the concept. The cultural change would be cemented with new procedures that incorporate regular involvement with customers and training and evaluation systems to support them.

6. Create and test your idea for strategic changes. Armed with your evaluation of the stakeholders’ feedback, create a proposal for changes to address the core issues. Test them by going back to your stakeholders for their reactions. By flexing and learning from them, you will discover whether the changes will succeed or what amendments should be made. Be prepared for additional complaints. Hard as they might be to hear, it means your stakeholders are invested in helping you build a long term solution. During this vetting process, remember that you can’t please everyone. However, the fact that you listened to what they had to say will increase the probability of their buy-in for what you finally decide to do.

Converting stumbling blocks to building blocks

Converting stumbling blocks to building blocks will help you travel the road to strategic solutions. Strategic thinking is not about natural talent but, rather, a strong determination to do the investigative work needed to lead you and your stakeholders to a better place. Not only will you reach a more durable solution, you also might enjoy the journey. Both you and your stakeholders will reap the benefits.