“Being strategic...involves a way of thinking and a set of skills that are applicable to almost any decision, large or small, professional or personal.”
In today’s work world, knowledge workers have the upper hand, and being able to think “strategically” is highly valued. Imagine being able to add “strategic thinker” to your talent stack by incorporating some easy steps, and being able to clearly make decisions in work and life from a strategic angle. Being Strategic by Erika Andersen demystifies the strategic planning process and puts strategic thinking within reach.
It’s Not Rocket Science
"Being strategic means consistently making those core directional choices that will best move you toward your hoped-for future."
We’ve all been there. The moment in the meeting when someone says, “I don’t think we are thinking strategically.” What, exactly, do they mean? Or worse, we are told that by the end of this quarter, we need to come up with a new “Strategic Plan.” Most people have an idea of what “being strategic” means, but their idea might not be shared by the person next to them at the table. The first thing Erika Andersen’s book, Being Strategic, does is get us on the same page with a clear definition of “being strategic” (see the quote above). The next thing she does is demystify the process of strategic problem solving by laying out clear and easy to follow steps.
Here they are:
At the Beginning: Define the challenge
Step One: Clarify What Is
Step Two: Envision What’s the “Hoped-for Future”
Step Three: Face What’s in the Way
Step Four: Determine What’s the Path
Then she shows a visualization of how it fits together, because the steps in the above order do not lead from what is to the Hoped-for future but rather fit together in a puzzle. By defining the hoped-for future, you can work through defining the path and overcoming the obstacles in your way more effectively.
(model p 27, Being Strategic)
Start with the End in Mind
"Until you have a clear sense of the problem to be solved, it’s impossible to envision what “solved” would look like—that is, the future you want to create."
You get everyone in the room to work on the strategic plan, and before you know it, people are running off in a million directions proposing what they think needs to be done. Halt! There are questions you can ask to get people moving in the same direction, without squelching the momentum and energy of the group. Try, “I’m not sure we’re all trying to solve the same problem. What do we think the problem is?” Then ask for a clear and unbiased exploration of what isn’t working. You can do this with groups, with yourself, or with a single individual, as I do when I’m coaching. When the problem has been articulated, restate it as a question, as in “How can I/we…?”
For example, I pride myself on detailed note-taking and communication with my clients, but it creates frustration with the amount of time I spend on these and other repetition tasks (problem defined). So I ask myself, “How can I reduce the amount of time on admin tasks?” Or an even better question is, “How can I make more of my time enjoyable?” Keep the “How can I…?” question front and center as you move through steps 1-4.
The step of clarifying “what is” is not usually a problem. In fact, it’s usually where we get buried with a data dump! But one crucial element is the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis. Just remember the “O” and “T” are “out there” (competitors, acts of god), while the “S” and “W” are “in here”—they describe you or your organization.
Next craft what success would look like. What is the “hoped-for future”? This is really, really important, because this is the goal you will be expending resources toward. I once was on the board of a nonprofit that did an extensive strategic planning exercise, but skipped this step. What resulted was a checklist of items to accomplish to keep the organization running, pretty much at the status quo. We failed to ask and agree on, “Where do we want this organization to be in 5 years? What’s our hoped-for future?”
To elaborate on my personal example of being bored with administration tasks defined previously, I might envision my hoped-for future as “Twelve months from now I want to be spending 95% of my time in enjoyable work.”
Strategies Reveal a Choice
"What’s the path: Roadway first, then asphalt…This step of the process is central to being strategic—and is the point where many people, even if they’ve made it this far, are most likely to run off the rails and just start “doing stuff.”"
There is no bigger argument in strategic planning sessions than distinguishing between strategies and tactics. Andersen provides a useful metaphor. Imagine you are choosing which path you will follow to reach your agreed “hoped-for future.” You have multiple options, and being strategic means choosing only the best paths and not spending resources on the others. Only after you have chosen your paths, or as Andersen says, “roadways,” do you move on to choose specifically what actions will comprise the path (the tactics).
It’s important to think big and broad when brainstorming strategies. They are, in Andersen’s words, “core directional efforts (that will) best move you forward toward your hoped-for future.” (Emphasis mine, Being Strategic, page 97). And they involve choice, because you can’t follow too many paths to your destination, or you won’t get there. Andersen recommends filtering your strategies for “F.I.T.”: Feasibility, Impact (good return on resources used), and Timely (addressing what needs to be done in what order, and/or what takes advantage of a time sensitive opportunity).
Going back to my minor example—which shows even small decisions can be made with a strategic lens—I brainstormed three strategies, or paths, or directions to choose from:
- Offload administration work to someone else. Tactics to consider would be hiring a virtual or local assistant, letting my high schooler do them, etc.
- Reduce the amount of administration expected by my clients. Tactically I’d need to assess what can be cut out and the impact on my business, and create a plan to transition clients to the new normal.
- Learn to make rote work fun. Tactically I could add upbeat music, create a game around completion or speediness, or create rewards for myself when the work is done.
It’s a minor example, but I hope it illustrates that stopping and thinking strategy before tactics can be a habit that leads to better solutions and more fun at work!
It’s never going to be simple to think strategically, but it can be made much more straightforward and accessible than we usually think.
So, today ask yourself: “as I consider how to use my time today, what core directional choice can I make that gets me closer to my hoped-for future?”