Four S’s of strategic thinking

Quotes About Thinking

“Ideas occur when dissimilar universes collide.” – Seth Godin

“If a window of opportunity appears, don’t pull down the shade.” – Tom Peters

“Should you find yourself in a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.” – Warren Buffett

5 Strategic Questions

Strategic thinking starts with asking questions. Here is a set to start you off:

1) What is the big picture? We all get caught up in the day to day tasks, stuff we have to get done. Asking yourself regularly “What is the big picture here?” will help you – and anyone you manage – clarify the purpose and the value of what you’re doing.

2) How do the adjacent business units align with what we’re doing? Once you get in the habit of thinking big picture, you will to notice if your comrades in other areas are aligned to your bigger picture. Or not. Asking yourself and asking them about alignment will help all of you stay on the same page.

3) What key performance measures do you track and how do you use them?

One of the smartest executives I know told me recently “to do good strategy, you have to get muddy, filthy in the data. Only then do you know what you are talking about.” Get clear on what you measure, why, and how it brings you “strategic insights.”

4) What do customers really value, and what are you competitors really good at?

We often make decisions about customers and competitors from the same lense: what we think.Go talk to customers and find out what they truly value, not just what you think. At the same time, don’t fall into the trap of underestimating your competitors. For the purposes of strategic thinking, never believe your own PR.

5) What are your key assumptions about industry trends?

We all have assumptions, mostly unspoken, about the way the present is and the way the future is going to go. Shine a light on these assumptions, discuss them with others, test them.

Four S’s of Strategic Thinking

Emily, senior vice president of operations, works for a large international bank. She is a down-to-earth, get things done, very funny person. A world-traveler who still maintains her Brooklyn accent, she uses her persona with real charm as she undertakes the painstaking work of, for example, re-engineering internal processes to root out and destroy every last manual form needed (she calls herself “the enemy of forms.”)

When I conducted 360-feedback about her the message from her senior leadership was unmistakable: we love Emily, we value her amazing drive and execution as well as her deep knowledge of the bank. But, Emily will not get to the next level without developing her strategic thinking.

Strategic thinking. It’s these code words that can drive you crazy. It’s a little squishy, and it means different things to different people.

Strategic thinking relates to analyzing situations from a broad perspective, given limited information and limited view. It requires lifting your head above the day to day to consider the larger environment in which you operate, asking questions and challenging assumptions, gathering complex and ambiguous data and then interpreting it. You use all this to set a direction for the future.

In Emily’s case the strategic thinking comment was particularly galling: all the things she worked on were strategic! How can executive leadership not see her strategic thinking, for crying out loud?

After some venting along those lines, we looked at the situation rationally. When Emily was honest with herself, she realized that she was mostly executing plans laid out for her by her boss, not creating the vision and the plans herself. And, since she spent so much of her time traveling and managing her young staff, she had very little time to advance the thinking. She only had time to execute.

This had to change.

I walked Emily through the Four S’s of strategic thinking: 1) Schedule time; 2) Stop, look and listen; 3) Scan the horizon; 4) Synthesize.

1) Schedule time: Leaders have one thing in common: they are busy! Really busy. Busy pushing forward projects, busy in meetings, busy creating powerpoints, busy responding to endless email. And, yet, strategic thinking takes time to…well, think! So schedule time. It’s a truism of corporate life: nothing happens unless it’s on your calendar. Right now, block out 1 hour 2 times per week to focus on “strategic thinking.

Now that you have 2 blank hours in your calendar, how will you fill them?

2) Stop, look, and listen: Look around your company, division and business unit for clues about what “strategic” looks like to others. Spot this by listening to what others call “strategic.” Listen to what the CEO says in Town Hall meetings and publicly. Ask your boss to spend a few minutes during your one-on-ones to discuss strategic issues that are on her mind. (Just by doing this your boss will begin to perceive you as more strategic.) Do the same thing with your peers at staff meetings, or with cross-functional colleagues over lunch. One of the hallmarks of a strategic thinker is curiosity. Ask questions, even ones you think you know the answers to. Get multiple perspectives.

3) Scan the horizon: Read business press and trade magazines, listen to the investor earnings call for your company and for some competitors. Look at what your competitors are doing and what core capabilities they bring as compared to you. What does this mean for the future of your business? What issues are your customers grappling with? What trends are out there that you need to react to? What trends are you banking on that you don’t see reported? Put yourself in the shoes of your boss – and the CEO; what would they think?

4) Synthesize: After gathering new data and new insight, ask yourself “so, what’s the so what?” If you are not used to strategic thinking, the “therefore” may not be so obvious. Here again is where you should talk to your colleagues, discuss it with your boss, and get helping synthesizing your new insights into an idea that advances the game strategically.

In the case of Emily, she first made time by giving clearer direction to her staff up front so they needed less daily supervision. She also just decided to clear time in her calendar – she realized she needed time to breath.

She went back to the executives from the 360-feedback exercise and asked them for more ideas and examples about what strategic looked like. Armed with that insight, she went to other colleagues and got a sense of the external environment to help her think differently about the bank and about her area.

Steeping herself in all of this led her to an honest-to-goodness “eureka” moment – she said that she actually banged her hand on her head like the old “I could have had a V-8” commercial. The information gathering and thinking she had done led her to a strategic insight about how to re-organize some processes and facilities and use an internal social media platform to get a lot more out of the global remote workforce. Using her existing credibility she sold this new idea to the executive team and implemented it exceptionally, freeing up a lot of time and saving a lot of money for the bank.

Mission accomplished.

1) Schedule time.

2) Stop, look and listen.

3) Scan the horizon.

4) Synthesize.

Which “S” do you need to work on to improve your strategic thinking? What next step will you take?

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