You’ve probably heard many times that the ability to think and plan strategically is critical for both organizations and individual professionals. But it is not always clear just what that entails, and how you can get better at it.
By my definition, “strategic thinking” means looking at the big picture and developing insights about how all the parts relate to one another. “Strategic planning” means organizing those insights into action steps that will move you toward accomplishment of your critical goals.
If you want to enhance your strategic capability, here are ways to start:
- Begin with a pause. You can’t think clearly about the big picture if you are overwhelmed by details that need to be addressed in the next few hours. The great strategists routinely take time out to get some perspective. Regularly schedule blocks on your calendar for thinking about your goals and how to achieve them. This might mean setting aside a few minutes at the start of each day, or committing to a lunch time with just you, your calendar and your “to do” list. It also could mean mini-retreats for your whole group. The time you devote to reframing and broadening your viewpoint will pay off with greater accomplishments in the long run.
- Look around and listen. It’s harder to develop new insights if you stick to the same old routines. If you want to be more strategic, broaden your sources of information. Ask new questions, listen to different people, read something else and go to events you don’t typically attend.
- Launch your planning with a vision. Spend some time thinking about what you want to achieve and what success could look like. Start with the fundamentals, like the mission of the organization or your own core values. Then visualize what it will be like if you are wildly successful. Don’t get bogged down in text. Instead, make lists of the elements of success, and, better yet, draw a “mind map,” a diagram or picture. The more graphic your vision is, the more powerful it can be in shaping your activity. Techniques like “image boards,” where a collage of pictures illustrates your vision, can be effective because they engage more areas of your brain.
- Use the “Strategic Triangle.” Professors at Harvard’s Kennedy School came up with this model to help non-profit groups develop effective strategies. In my simplified version, you can “do the Triangle,” and lay the groundwork for your strategic plan, by asking three sets of questions:
- What is your vision? What are you trying to create? And how will that relate to your organization’s broader mission and/or your own key values?
- Who are the stakeholders? Before you start listing action items, think about everyone who could conceivably have an interest in, or be impacted by, your vision. What could your vision mean for your bosses, your customers, your colleagues and even regulators or rivals?
- What resources do you need? What will it take to build the capacity to make your vision a reality? What systems, procedures, expertise and channels of communication should you put in place?
- Know where you’re going and how to begin. Whether you’re crafting a multi-year strategy to guide a huge organization, or coming up with ways to make your life better, the essence of the planning process is identifying specific steps that will move you toward the vision. The most important elements of your plan are (1) a brief description of where you want to go and (2) a list of specific immediate steps, with due dates, to start you moving in that direction.
- Find a useful format. Your broad strategic vision can be in your head, but strategic plans should be in writing (and reread frequently). A simple plan might include your vision statement, your top three objectives, and your specific goals for the next week and the coming quarter. A key is that, with a quick look, the plan will make sense to you and the people you lead.
- Learn from the experts. Many books and websites offer strategic planning templates. For example, in his guide for mid-size businesses, “Mastering the Rockefeller Habits,” Verne Harnish offers a detailed strategic plan organizer that asks you to identify:
- Targets (where you want to be in 3 to 5 years);
- Goals (what you need to achieve in the coming year to move you toward your Targets); and
- Actions (what steps are you going to take by specific dates to assure you reach your Goals).
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Bevs Tips for a Better Work Life is published on the first and third Tuesday of each month by Beverly E. Jones of ClearWays Consulting, LLC. Bev is a lawyer and former executive who now coaches accomplished executives and other professionals to bring new direction, energy and enjoyment to their work lives.
Copyright ©2012, ClearWays Consulting, LLC Beverly E. Jones
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