Strategic Thinking and the Maze

This is the fifth in my series of Suit Yourself essays.

There’s a sense in business that flurries of activity are good and will add up to great results. There’s a concomitant lack of patience for strategic thinking and planning – "yes, yes, yes, that’s all well and good, but we have to make next quarter’s numbers" – as if somehow you couldn’t possibly do both.

This drove me crazy until I realized that people obsessed with activity aren’t rejecting the concept or value of strategy. Instead, they believe that a lot of great activity will add up to a great result.

I’m not sure why anyone would believe – or want to believe – that great results are simply the happy, but accidental, conflation of luck and activity. Before I learned not to assume that others see things the way I do, I suffered years of frustration as the result of my assumption that others were seeing the forest plainly, but for some inexplicable reason still randomly hacking at trees.

MazeThe truth is much simpler. A former colleague once memorably said to me, "There is no forest, Debra. There are only trees." Luckily, this sort of extreme case is relatively rare, but even people who believe in the forest don’t reliably see it as distinct from the trees. To them, strategy is action taken successfully. They truly don’t see the operational difference between plugging away while hoping for the best, and articulating a destination, then choosing the most efficient, effective and painless route and method for arriving there.

It’s as if we believe one approach is pretty much indistinguishable from another and as if incremental savings of time or money or aggravation are inconsequential. This reminds me – unpleasantly – of the rat in the maze who just keeps throwing himself at walls and into electric shocks until eventually he stumbles on the cheese. Apparently, if he eventually gets there he’s a success. This success being the goal, the fact that the process was far less efficient and more painful than it had to be gets lost in the applause.

How come just about everybody will tell you how important strategic planning is (lots of spilled ink on this), but so few people actually spend much time doing any? I’m sorry to say that for many years I attributed this to sliminess; I suspected people were willing to say it, hoping to lull others into a false sense of security, but not actually to do it. But you know what? In my experience, people don’t generally do this on purpose. Most people don’t say one thing, then knowingly do another. Instead, they truly don’t see the difference. They think they are acting consistently with their words.

I believe that being able to see the difference – reliably and consistently – is a matter of where you pitch your vision. You need to be pitched just high enough to see the overall patterns, but not too high to see the details.

Strategic thinking requires a capital investment – an upfront commitment of time
and effort now for a benefit later.  This investment may look impossible or
unwarranted given all the other demands on our time, but it will actually shrink the
amount of time and effort those other demands end up requiring.  Believing this is
essential to becoming a strategic thinker.

What does it take to reliably and consistently approach work strategically? I think it's a matter of focus, trust and training.

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