“Strategic;” it’s the label that we’re all looking for. From the description at the top of our LinkedIn profiles to the comments on our 360 feedback, most of us want to be viewed as strategic by our teammates and our bosses. Strategic people are seen as more valuable, get more air time, and are more likely to end up leading the team. How can you be, and be seen to be, more strategic?
What is Strategic?
Google Dictionary defines strategic as “Carefully designed or planned to serve a particular purpose or advantage.” That is a very broad definition and reflects the wide variety of thoughts, plans, and actions that can legitimately be labeled as strategic. I think it’s a very useful definition because it debunks the myth that strategic is synonymous with multi-million (and multi-billion) dollar business plans, shareholder value, and competitive advantage.
Being strategic doesn’t require that you have the authority to make organization-wide decisions; nor does it depend on developing elaborate plans and investing significant resources in a course of action. Being strategic requires only that you be more deliberate about your thoughts and your actions. It demands that you put the smallest decision in the context of your broader goals. Being strategic is reflecting on the situation, connecting disparate things together, and making choices about how you will proceed. Everyone has an opportunity to be strategic.
Three Steps in Being Strategic
The pace of modern business has created a harried and frenetic culture where people’s first response to “Hi, how are you?” is “Busy!” Calendars full of meetings and evenings spent catching up on work have squeezed out the thinking time that is so critical to being strategic. The result is that our decisions are based more on reflex than on reflection. The risk of reflexive, knee-jerk decisions is that they tend to be based on past experience and what has worked before. That would be fine if our world was static, but it is not. The world—your industry, your competitors, your customers are changing at an unprecedented rate. Doing what you’ve always done can be as risky (or more) as trying a new and unproven approach.
In this context, it’s more important than ever to make time to reflect on the situation before making decisions. What is at stake? What is involved? Who is involved? What is the opportunity in the situation and what are the risks? Choices that appear simple might become more complex when you appreciate the bigger picture. Biases and defaults that you have learned over time might be getting in the way of good decisions when you think critically about a situation. What at first seemed like an opportunity might reveal significant risk and what seemed at first a risk might reveal significant opportunity if you reflect more fully on the situation.
You have a chance to be the person on your team who pauses just long enough to evaluate the situation more fully. Try asking questions such as:
- How would this impact our customers?
- To what extent are the changes in our industry making this approach outdated?
- What impact will new regulations have on our business?
Many of us just take the world as it comes; working through lists of tasks and making decisions as if each is independent of the others. There are examples every day. Your job is to secure a new IT vendor so you set out to find the most qualified partner to do the work. You are planning a new customer service initiative to address sagging ratings in some of your locations. There is no shortage of tasks to accomplish. But focusing too narrowly restricts your chance to be strategic. Some of the most important opportunities to be strategic come not just from reflecting on a single interesting opportunity, but from connecting that opportunity to others. Strategic people create connections between ideas, plans, and people that others fail to see. Being strategic requires that you make connections between things that otherwise seem completely separate.
As an example, take two of the tasks I mentioned above: You are looking for a new IT vendor for your operations in the Caribbean when you find out that another department is working on new customer service standards. Can you connect the two initiatives? Will that create a unique (and strategic) opportunity to improve service levels by combining better protocols for face-to-face interactions with more efficient and effective data available in real time?
And, remember, strategic opportunities are not always directly about business plans. What if that new IT vendor invited you to a conference where you met three people from other companies who had already implemented their new systems? Would you make the connection and take the opportunity to learn from what others have done before you? Would you ask questions about the vendor and how to optimize the contract and the relationship? Strategic people see the world as a web of interconnected ideas and people and they find opportunities to advance their interests at those connection points.
Try asking questions such as:
- How does this initiative relate to the one they are doing in another department?
- How is this connected to the industry trends we discussed earlier?
- Who else would be useful in helping us think this through?
A person who reflects on situations and decisions and connects ideas and people still has one significant problem: it isn’t possible to do everything! With a broad view of the world and a keen eye for potential, the possibilities are unlimited. Unfortunately, time, money, and resources are not. The imbalance between untapped opportunities and available resources creates the need for the final aspect of being strategic: the ability and willingness to make choices. Individuals, teams, and organizations that take on too much are likely to deliver too little.
Making choices, both in terms of what your team will do and when you will do it, is a critical part of being strategic. It’s also a very difficult task because it is the point in the strategic decision when you close one door in favor of another. This requires solid understanding of the situation and a vision of the implications of following one scenario or another. It also requires the courage to take action (for which you could later be blamed) and confidence to abandon an alternative (which could be viewed as a missed opportunity). It is at the point of choice that being strategic comes to life. It isn’t without risks, but the risk of not choosing, of spreading limited resources over too many options is greater. Strategic people prefer taking action and course correcting when required to the unappealing options of stagnating and doing nothing or stalling from trying to do everything.
Try asking questions such as:
- If we could only do one of these things, which would have the greatest impact?
- Given our resources, how many of these initiatives can we execute well?
- How could we phase these projects so we don’t have to do everything at once?
Being strategic is important to your team and to your career. The good news is that you don’t need to be a CEO to be strategic; you just need to be more deliberate in your thoughts and actions. By investing time and energy to reflect on the situations and decisions that face your team; by finding ways to connect ideas and people that others are not linking; and by having the courage to recommend choices about what your team should do and what you shouldn’t, you will greatly increase your strategic contribution to the team. Soon you’ll realize that you’re being viewed differently, getting included in more discussions, and adding even more value to your team.
 Underestimating the Risk of the Status Quo, Roger Martin, Harvard Business School Press, 2007