The seventh strategic thinking skill may not seem like a skill at all.
Taking time to recharge yourself, however, is an absolutely crucial strategic thinking skill. This key item both improves productivity and allows for separate, rich strategic thinking.
Taking time out isn’t just about self-care and recharging, although those are important benefits. Taking time away from the routine of urgent issues and operational thinking is necessary to “reset” the brain to the different approaches of strategic thinking.
There are five key strategic thinking skill benefits from this intentional “recharge yourself” approach.
1. The brain is allowed to shift from reaction to contemplation.
These are two very different types of thinking, and reaction thinking is usually the worst kind of approach to strategic thinking. This is partly because reaction thinking is very predictable. That is, your competitors are likely to anticipate your responses if you are simply reacting to their moves. Great chess players will tell you that this is always a losing strategy. Winning calls for you to make your competitors react to you.
2. Taking a break to recharge yourself signals to your mind that a different kind of thinking is called for.
The human brain habitually looks for threats and things to fix. One brain researcher I know says this is a natural result of our history. Early man, living on the African Savannah, could not survive without constantly scanning the horizon for lions creeping up. When we back away from this “unsafe” environment, we gain the ability to think differently. Naturally, most of us don’t face lions in our work. However, we do face stressful and threatening problems, and they trigger the same responses in our brains. Signaling to your brain that you are “safe” to relax and think differently is a very important part of good strategic thinking.
3. Backing away from daily concerns opens space for bigger-picture thinking.
It’s not just “safety” we need to do good strategic thinking. We also need to stop focusing in on the details of tactical reality. While every business must handle tactics well, it is easy to fail to see the forest because we are focused on the trees. Strategic thinking requires consideration of the bigger picture, and you can’t do that well while focused on daily activities.
4. Shifting activity improves creativity by stimulating different sets of neurons in your brain
Brilliant psychologist Donald MacKinnon described creativity as hinging upon an “ability to play”. Play is inherently seen as a separate activity from work. Part of its effectiveness lies in the mental shift that comes from that separation. When we shift our thinking this way, we essentially process our world using different parts of the brain. The creativity this encourages is a vital part of good strategic thinking.
5. Your mental focus can shift from “drain the swamp because we are up to our rears in alligators” to “where are all these alligators coming from anyway, and can we harness them?”.
We all know the old saw about “draining the swamp” when surrounded by alligators. Strategic thinking often calls for us to look far beyond just draining the swamp. How can we actually change or harness the forces that buffet our organizations on a daily basis? Taking time away from routine work allows you to stop thinking about the alligators for a bit. Refocus on the swamp, the sources of alligators, and why we want to drain the swamp, anyway.
The way you recharge yourself doesn’t have to be a nap or recreation.
It can be anything that separates you from more routine thinking. Taking a walk in a special environment, doodling on a blank pad, or relaxing someplace quiet with a cup of tea can all serve this purpose. Some people who specialize in brain performance suggest having a ritual of separation from the daily grind. This ritual – drinking a cup of tea is a good example – can be simple, but it also signals your brain to “shift gears” to strategic thinking.
Here are a few strategic skill ideas about how you can step away from the tactical to think better about the strategic.
1. Get away, physically.
Granted, this may not always be possible, but physical separation clearly signals the change in thinking that is called for. If you can’t physically get away, do what you can to minimize the routine stimuli of your work day. Especially minimize noises, interruptions, phone calls and email.
2. Start with a ritual.
Do something concrete to signal to your brain that you are shifting gears. This may mean putting on soothing music, having a cup of tea, or settling into a comfortable chair. While some people have elaborate rituals to do this, you only need one that sends a clear signal to your brain. The signal should say “I am going to think differently for a while”.
3. Shield yourself from stressors.
This is not just about the physical stressors mentioned earlier, like noise and interruptions. You also want to do anything you can to stay away from topics which lead to rumination about tactical issues. This is why it’s crucial to mentally set some topics on the shelf when you are taking time away from work. If nothing else, simply tell yourself you are putting a pin in those topics and will certainly return to them later.
4. Intentionally re-frame your thinking.
This may be one of the hardest strategic thinking skills to acquire, but there are some simple tools you can use. My favorites are turning things upside-down and systematizing. Ask questions like “How could I make sure we lose customers as quickly as possible?”. Another question might be “How can we profit from the things that most annoy us?” For the purpose of taking time out, you may want to think about your business in a more playful way. For example, “If our industry were a game, what would the board look like?” Another playful question might be “How would Leonardo daVinci manage my business?”
5. Write down your ideas.
At the end, if you don’t capture your thinking, all the great strategic thinking in the world won’t do you any good. So, write something down. It doesn’t have to be amazing. Just make sure you can pick up the thread again later.
I’d love to hear any stories of things that have led to great successes for you. And – of course – if you’d like assistance developing these skills, please reach out to me for workshops, coaching and consulting assistance. If you’d like to learn more about taking time to recharge yourself and more specifically how to develop strategic awareness, Simplified Strategic Planning is a great place to start. For great ideas on how to improve the quality of your planning, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Consider holding a one-day workshop on Simplified Strategic Planning.
Dana Baldwin is Senior Strategist with the Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.