You, Strategist

Imagine a world where there was no direction, no purpose, no thinking. A constant flow of aimless activities consumes your existence. Products and services slowly become commodities, like mass-produced parts on an assembly line. People stare blankly into their computer screens, searching for answers in a sea of PowerPoint slides and Excel spreadsheets. A seemingly endless stream of time-sucking teleconferences providing little value rust away once razor-sharp minds.

Next year will be better, or, maybe it won’t. Maybe this year will be pretty much the same as last year. But, what if it could be great? And what if you were the one to make it so? What if you were the strategist, the architect of that success?

A twenty-five year study of 750 bankrupt companies showed that the number one cause of bankruptcy is bad strategy. What’s at the root of bad strategy? Bad strategists. Not intentionally bad, but simply unaware of the principles of good strategy. Unfortunately, ignorance isn’t a serviceable excuse when you’re asked why a competitor has leapfrogged your product, or why your business is bleeding customers to a new entrant. At that point, it’s too late. You’re labeled “tactical,” and it’s a label that will stick.

A Harris Interactive study of 154 companies showed that on average, only 30 percent of managers are strategic. What does that look like in the real world? Consider some of your recent meetings or teleconferences: a good discussion on an important business issue suddenly gets derailed by a rambling commentary that completely misses the point, making it nearly impossible to get the conversation back on track; the leader of the teleconference fails to state the goal of the call and then doesn’t capture the group’s insights and learning’s at the end of the call; or two internal departments have little to no idea what each other’s goals and strategies are because their leaders have failed to establish a routine of periodic strategy conversations between the two teams.

The reality is that everyone in your organization is a strategist. Strategy involves the intelligent allocation of limited resources–time, talent and budget–to reach a goal. Everyone possesses time, talent and perhaps budget. How a person uses their time, talent and budget each day will ultimately determine the success or failure of the organization.

That’s why great leaders don’t make the mistake of believing that they are the one and only keepers of strategy. Great leaders ensure that all of their people understand the principles of sound strategy and the techniques for thinking strategically on a regular basis. Like other skills such as hitting a golf ball or playing the piano, if you only “do strategy” once a year during the planning cycle, you can be assured you won’t be very good at it. Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley writes, “There simply is no one perfect strategy that will last for all time. There are multiple ways to win in almost any industry. That’s why building up strategic thinking capability within your org is so vital.”

To move strategy from an annual event to an ongoing skill set, there are three foundational disciplines of strategic thinking:

1. Acumen: generating key business insights. An insight is when you’re able to combine two or more pieces of information or data in a unique way to come up with a new solution or approach to bringing value to customers. During your daily meetings or phone calls with colleagues, customers and others, ask yourself, “What insights or learning’s did I take away from that interaction? If you find yourself in a situation on a regular basis where you aren’t learning, or sharing insights, change it or stop it.

2. Allocation: focusing resources through trade-offs. Great strategy is as much about what you choose not to do as it is about what you choose to do. Everyone has a to-do list. The great managers are also crystal clear on where they and their teams are not going to spend their time, talents and budget. What do you think you should stop doing that is no longer of much value so you can focus in other areas?

3. Action: executing strategy to achieve goals. If three months into the New Year, you find your daily activities are driven by fire drills, phone calls and other urgent but unimportant things, call a mental time out. If a person’s daily activities aren’t driven by a simple concise plan outlining their goals and strategies, then what exactly are they doing? They’re certainly not contributing anything of value to the company. As Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management wrote, “Without making an effort to ‘do strategy,’ a company runs the risk of its numerous daily choices having no coherence to them, of being contradictory across divisions and levels and of amounting to very little of meaning.” Don’t confuse activity with achievement.

Will this year be the same as last year, or will it be better? It’s up to You, Strategist.

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