One of my favorite parts of my work is speaking at conventions. Interestingly, I’ve noticed far more interest in hearing about strategic thinking than strategic planning in the past few years. While this trend is likely because most people are doing strategic planning the wrong way, it’s still interesting to ponder why people have difficulty thinking strategically.
Ultimately, the difficult part of strategic thinking is that it’s not what we are hard-wired to do. Scott Halford, author of “Activate Your Brain”, points out that there are excellent biological reasons for this. Our brains developed during a time when the immediate threat of being eaten by a lion was very real and immediate for humans. The strongest and fastest parts of our brains, as a result, tend to be those that help us respond to threats, since deep analysis could well be fatal in those “lion is attacking you NOW” situations.
In today’s world, however, there are precious few lion-induced fatalities. Indeed, most of us would be far better off paying far more attention to good strategic thinking, but that means getting past the well-meaning defenses our brains have set up for us. Here are a few, simple things you can do to accomplish this:
- Learn to focus
The term “focus” is incredibly misused, even in strategy. It sounds so good – but focus is so hard for most of us. The problem of focus is not one of thinking about whatever you choose to focus on – it’s much more a problem of NOT thinking about the things you aren’t focusing on. This is a serious skill, and one that requires practice. If you can build effective shields that keep useless distractions from entering your thinking, you’ll be far ahead in the strategy game.
- Use your sword (and not your shield)
In the pre-modern world, soldiers who fought with sword and shield tended to defend better when attacked from their left (shield) side. While this makes sense, it creates a strong tendency to favor defensive, “hunkered down” thinking that – while creating decent defenses – often interferes with forward-thinking strategies. If your thinking doesn’t involve attacking effectively with the best weapons you have at your disposal, you may be guilty of defensive thinking. This can work – for a short while – but ultimately will leave you exposed and vulnerable to threats that you failed to anticipate.
- Be more like Einstein
Of course, by this I don’t mean be a genius – though this can help. What I mean here is that you have to think in relative terms. Your company doesn’t exist in a vacuum – your choices will change customer, supplier and competitor behaviors in ways you can predict, if you think through the second and third order effects of your strategic choices. Good strategic thinking tends to demonstrate an awareness that we function within a huge network of decision-making processes which can change our strategic choices in unanticipated ways.
- Remember your competitors have motives, too
While this can be seen as an extension of relativistic thinking, some of the most effective strategies I’ve used have simply involved giving your competitor an easy way to succeed by letting you dominate the customers you choose to get. This isn’t a magic bullet – it requires accepting something that’s bad enough that your competitors wouldn’t choose it – but most competitors would rather take the easy bait than fight you tooth and nail for market share in places where you have strategic advantage. All you need to do is make sure the bait is the customers you don’t want.
- Have a well-considered plan
All of the above approaches work far better when your team has – and understands – a rigorously developed, flexible strategic plan. A quality strategic plan – which doesn’t mean reams of budgets or oversimplified rah-rah truisms – will give your team the confidence to think strategically about novel situations. This reaction – a strategic one – is far better for your long-term success than instinctive “the lion is going to eat me” thinking.
Naturally, the details of using all of these approaches are not always easy, and an experienced focused strategist can greatly improve your team’s ability to use these tools.
Does your company think strategically everyday? Let us know how you are dealing with it – or, better yet, attend our amazing, data-driven workshop on Simplified Strategic Planning to learn how to think strategically. Our highly acclaimed Simplified Strategic Planning approach has helped many hundreds of organizations improve their strategies and bottom line results with effective, actionable strategies. Please listen to our webinar: Why my strategic planning isn’t working.