Chess Board_thinking strategically

One of the things CEOs ask consistently is how they can help foster more strategic thinking in their organizations. Simply saying, "I want to see you thinking more strategically," isn't direct or specific enough to help guide people in the right direction. Thinking strategically is essentially a way of being, a mindset, a way of looking at things and linking them together.

Here are eight things you can do to improve strategic thinking:

Understand value creation and differentiation. Leaders understand the business and industry they are in, but it's more than that. You need to understand how the industry adds value to customers and how your business differentiates its value equation from those of your competitors.

Connect "me to we" to "they to us" (operations to strategy). As a leader you need to be able to understand the overall corporate direction and strategy in the context of your team, and your own personal areas of responsibility. Think of it like this: the strategic moves we make today are setting up the operational successes we have in the future. So the better understanding you and your team have of the connection between corporate goals and the work they do day to day, the more likely they and you are to focus on longer-term priorities, rather than staying mired in operations and shiny objects.

Anticipate consequences, both intended and unintended. Every decision carries with it consequences. Leaders need to learn to analyze the risks of their decisions, both short-term and long-term. Here are some key areas of risk to start with: people, resources, precedents, processes/systems, legal/liability, financial viability and safety. Seeing your decisions in the context of the overall organization, today and in the future, will help prevent a good decision today from becoming a mess you need to fix in the future.

Ask "why not?" Apple is famous for its advertising slogan, Think Different. One of the lessons in that message, even if it is grammatically incorrect, is to focus on what you want to create without putting the "how we're going to do it" in the way of your creativity. I've seen leaders kill a good idea because they didn't know how to pull it off right away. When I ask them, "But is it a good idea if you could do it?" and they answer "Yes", my response is, "So, you haven't figured out how to do it yet, but that doesn't mean it's impossible, correct?"

Put people first, then strategy. As Larry Bossidy says, "At the end of the day, you bet on people, not strategies." The role of the leader is to find great people, help them experience their true genius and then work on the strategy together. When a client asks us how she can improve most effectively as a leader, our answer is to look first at the strength of her team, because "Your boat only floats as high as the tide, and the tide is your team."

Grow who you know. Learn how to build alliances and partnership, both inside and outside the organization, to leverage the capabilities, networks, experience and expertise that you, your team or your organization don't have internally. So it's not just who you know, it's what value you can create together.

Plan for execution. The best strategic plan requires a framework for execution and a method for holding people accountable. Think of it as a project plan for your strategy with tangible actions, not vague concepts or ideas. Without this, your team will struggle to know what your next tangible step is. The key with the plan is to layer on levels of simplicity instead of trying to start with something complex. It's very difficult to unwind complexity and start over.

Learn to prioritize. We're all going to die with items left undone on our to-do lists. Leaders need to learn to prioritize, and put their energy into fewer, higher-leverage projects. Not doing so leaves you vulnerable to common traps like chasing shiny objects that pull you and your team away from the core strategy, trying to tackle too many things at once or equating busy-ness with success. The antidote to this is to equate success with success, then focus only on those core priorities that will get you there.

Growing more strategic thinkers in your organization is a blend of modeling these eight behaviours as CEO and then coaching your leaders to do the same.

Mike Desjardins is a transformation specialist at Virtus, a strategic planning and leadership development consultancy based in Vancouver for entrepreneurial business as well as public companies.

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