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LEADERSHIP: How To Be a Strategic Thinker In a Crisis Economy: 5 Core Skills

On a regular basis people in leadership are asked to think at a strategic level, to identify a vision for the future, define key strategies to achieve the vision and convert those strategies into long-term objectives.  For some people, this type of thinking is fun, easy and energizing.  For others, who prefer to focus on the concrete, specific issues of the day, this type of thinking is confusing and exhausting.  They often will say, “What difference does it make to think long-term when we have no idea what tomorrow will bring?”

For many it’s more important to put out today’s fires, than to switch gears and do more long-range strategic planning.  The “tyranny of the urgent” compels them to limit their focus to just today.  As a result, they are unpracticed at how to change their approach and break the patterns that are driving them nuts.  A bit like, “better the devil I know than the devil I don’t know,” they do not know how to be a strategic thinker.  Is it possible for everyone to develop skills in strategic thinking?  If so, what are the core skills needed to do it well?  Let’s take a look.

The process of strategic planning is one in which people examine the “current state” by gathering information and testing assumptions and then anticipate the environment in which the organization will be working in the future, recognizing that it will most likely be dynamic, changing and unpredictable.  The questions that emerge focus on what to do, why to do it, and how to do it.  Because we can’t do everything that we would like, strategic planning forces us to make decisions based on which actions are more important than others to ensure our ability to respond successfully to these changes we are anticipating in the environment.  Much of the “strategic” component is based on making tough decisions about what is most important to achieving that success.

When we start to think at a strategic level, here are some important questions to ask:

– Are we doing the right things?
– Do we understand the environmental pressures emerging?
– What are the most important issues to respond to?
– How will these forces affect or impede the fulfillment of our vision?
– What are some creative ways to respond to these forces that we haven’t considered before?

Dr. Jagdish Sheth, a respected authority on marketing and strategic planning, provides the following framework for understanding strategic management by suggesting that we focus on these three elements:

– formulation of the organization’s future mission in light of changing external factors such as regulation, competition, technology, and customers

– development of a competitive strategy to achieve the organization’s mission

– creation of an organizational structure which will maximize resources to carry out the competitive strategy successfully.

The best strategic planners have five key characteristics that they demonstrate throughout this planning process.

  1. The best planners look outside their immediate circle and even outside their industry or market to anticipate the next trends.  They are well-read and aware of the best business strategies recommended by experts.  They spend time exploring the unknown and deciphering what is most meaningful for their organization. They see the “big picture” from a variety of perspectives (customer, stakeholders, regulatory, legislative) and can articulate what it will mean for their organization.
  1. They know their organization’s distinct capabilities that competitors can’t quickly or easily copy and work to capitalize on them.  They constantly turn to those strengths when defining strategy.  This uniqueness isn’t an inflated sense of organizational self, but rather clear core competencies that distinguish them from others.
  1. They set goals and targets that move the organization away from “business as usual” and demonstrate an achievable stretch.  Staying the same isn’t an acceptable option for strategic thinkers; it is a fatal flaw.   They are pioneers who nudge the organization into the unknown (see Michael’s blog on the verge) in a way that makes all the sense in the world.   They build accountability into the plan by assigning leaders for each goal, who are responsible for galvanizing others to work on the plan.
  1. They are able to cascade the plan’s implementation through effective communication and engagement at every level.  As change champions, they accept the role of chief communicators of the plan, driving home the key strategies that are imperative for success.  They don’t get lost in the “weeds,” but inspire excellence in others.  They are walking embodiments of the plan – with a message that is always on point.
  1. They’re able to analyze the plan’s success using not only financial measures, but also qualitative measures (e.g. Are we improving customer satisfaction; are employees more motivated; is our quality improving?).  They focus on whether the organization is trending in the right direction on the critical measures, and regularly communicate results to everyone.  These measures help to make the strategic plan an everyday discussion, rather than an annual event.

One of the biggest problems regarding strategic planning is that we allocate very little time to do it.  Ask yourself:  how much time should I be spending each month working on identifying and implementing our strategies for the future?  Let’s say you estimate 10 hours/month.  Now allocate those 10 hours throughout each month in whatever way works for you.  By the end of the

second quarter (June), you will have spent 30 hours on some of the five items above such as: reading a business book like the new Collins book, Great by Choice, attending a professional conference and speaking with others outside your field, investigating what your competitors are doing, and communicating your findings to others.  People will begin to see you as a strategic thinker, as well as a tactical implementer – value-added now in both arenas.

Looking to get started?  We encourage you to download our Mission, Vision, Values Guidebook: Creating a Strong Strategic Future for Your Organization. 

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