This post is a part of Strategy Month—my 30-day LinkedIn series aimed at bringing strategy down from its lofty perch and providing the ideas, techniques, and tools to democratize strategy in your team or organization. The first week was Strategy Creation week, with videos, exercises, and tools to help you develop a great strategy. Last week was Strategy Mobilization week, focused on getting your whole organization aligned and executing. Today is the start of Strategic Thinking week. You can follow along here.
How strategic you are (or are perceived to be) can have a big impact on which conversations you get to take part in, how you’re evaluated and compensated, and on whether or not you’re promoted. It’s safe to say that for most knowledge workers, the label of strategic or non-strategic has significant repercussions. Now try asking your boss or someone in HR for a definition of what it means to be strategic, or some examples of what being strategic would look like in your role…you’ll likely get vague, unhelpful answers.
Let’s see if we can fill the vacuum.
What Being More Strategic Isn’t
The good news is that you don’t have to have a C-suite role or control over a multi-million-dollar budget to be strategic. You don’t have to be a management consultant, have an MBA, or even own a suit. Being more strategic is NOT building more plans, plotting more charts, or presenting 84-page PowerPoint decks. (In fact, I’ll give you strategic points if you never use the word “deck” to refer to a set of slides ever again.)
What is Strategic
Being strategic is framing the smallest decision in the context of bigger goals—then seeing how the choices available can create different, better paths to achieve what you’re trying to accomplish. Period.
Now imagine all the decisions that become strategic with that definition.
- Reading an industry publication (even better, an industry publication from a different industry)
- Nurturing a relationship, such as one that could provide unique insight into a supplier or a customer (whether that’s at a trade show or on the bleachers at a little league game)
- Triaging your workload to prioritize the highest value tasks
Everyone has an opportunity to think more strategically.
Be More Strategic
One factor more than any other is stifling strategic thinking—activity. Busy people with cluttered minds rush from one task to another with too little consideration of whether the task is the right one. Here’s my favorite quote on the subject
“As you climb the ladder of success, be sure it’s leaning against the right building.”
When you’re rushing to do, do, do, you don’t stop to think about the context, the connections, or the consequences of your actions. The result is decisions that are based more on reflex than on reflection. Reflex is great when you want to repeat something you’ve done a million times before. Reflex is efficient when you’re in a situation that is unchanging. Reflex gets you in big trouble if you’re doing what you’ve always done in a world that’s morphing at an unprecedented pace.
To move from reflex to reflection, to engage strategic thinking requires that you practice meta-cognition, which is just the fancy-schmancy way of saying thinking about how you think. A recent study by Chen et al shows that strategic thinking is a combination of two things. First, having the right questions to ask to take a novel view of your situation (the skills) and second, the disciplined application of these skills in the heat of the moment.
It’s critically important to make time to reflect before making decisions (even everyday, run-of-the-mill decisions). What is this about? Who’s impacted? What’s at stake? What’s the opportunity and what are the risks? What at first seems like an opportunity might reveal significant risk and what seemed risky at first might reveal a significant opportunity. But you’ll only have these epiphanies if you make the space for them.
Your other response to your harried life might be to make a list of things to accomplish, put your head down and get busy doing them. But focusing too narrowly restricts your chance to be strategic. Blinders help the racehorse go very fast, but the racehorse is going around and around the same predictable oval. Strategic people cast their gaze broadly and create connections between ideas, plans, and people that others fail to see.
And remember, relationships are strategic too. One very tangible way that you can be strategic is to form networks and connections of people. No, I don’t mean going to smarmy cocktail events where you fumble to hand out your business card while holding a canape in one hand and a cocktail in the other. I mean putting yourself and others into novel situations with diverse people so that ideas, resources, and support can flow in directions they haven’t before.
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. If you want some fun homework, watch an episode of James Burke’s fantastic show Connections, from 1978. I LOVED this show as a kid. Or, if you can’t handle the 1970s fashion (or video quality), the awesome Latif Nassar has done his own version, called Connected on Netflix that I also really love. Either of these shows will show you the value of pulling a thread to find otherwise unseen connections.
Even if you reflect on opportunities and connect ideas and people, you still have one enduring problem: it isn’t possible to do everything! Possibilities are unlimited; time, money, and resources are not. That necessitates choices.
Making choices, both about what you will do and what you won’t, is a critical part of being strategic. Closing one door in favor of another requires the courage to take action (for which you could later be blamed) and confidence to abandon an alternative (which could be a missed opportunity). It’s at the point of choice that your ability to be strategic is finally tested. It isn’t without risks, but the risk of not choosing, of spreading limited resources over too many options is greater.
You will be seen as more strategic if you take action and course-correct than if you choose to stagnate and do nothing or, alternatively, stall from trying to do everything.
You don’t need a new title, more control, or bigger budgets to be more strategic; you just need to look beyond the moment to connect your actions to something bigger. Invest time and energy to reflect not just on what is, but what could be. Find ways to connect ideas and people that you had never linked before. Have the guts to make choices about what you will do and what you won’t. Soon people will be looking at you differently, calling on you more often, and maybe even giving you that promotion you’ve been hoping for.
 I did some investigation into this quote and although it’s been attributed in various forms to numerous people over the years, quoteinvestigator.com says that Allen Reine is the most probable answer. Allen Reine was the pseudonym of a Welsh novelist named Anne Adaliza Evans.