Wayne State University

Aim Higher

Strategic Agility

Development Suggestions

1. Speaking strategically. In some rare cases, we have found people who could think strategically who were not identified as such because they either didn’t know, rejected or chose not to use what they considered the latest strategic buzzwords. Strategy is an emerging and ever changing field. At any time, there are gurus (at present probably Michael Porter, Ram Charan, C.K. Prahalad, Gary Hamel, Fred Weirsema and Vijay Govindarajan) in vogue, who create about 75 new words or concepts (values disciplines, strategic intent or destination, core capabilities, value migration, market oligarchy, co-evolution, strategic horizon) to describe strategic thinking. If you don’t use these words, then I won’t know you’re being strategic. The words are to be found in books by these gurus, in the Harvard Business Review and Strategy and Leadership, a publication of the Strategic Leadership Forum. And yes, most of the words are bigger words for things we used to call something else before with smaller words. Nevertheless, if you want to be seen as more strategic, you have to talk more strategically. Every discipline has its lexicon. In order to be a member, you have to speak the code.

2. Reject strategy? There are people who reject strategic formulation as so much folly. They have never seen a five year strategic plan actually happen as projected. They think the time they use to create and present strategic plans is wasted. They think it’s where the rubber meets the sky. So much BS. While it’s true that most strategic plans never work out as planned, that doesn’t mean that it was a wasted effort. Strategic plans lead to choices about resources and deployment. They lead to different staffing actions and different financial plans. Without some strategic plans, it would be a total shot in the dark. Most failed companies got buried strategically not tactically. They were still making high quality buggy whips when they went under. They picked the wrong direction or too many. Not being able to produce a quality product or service today is generally not the problem.

3. Not curious? Many managers are so wrapped up in today’s problems that they aren’t curious about tomorrow. They really don’t care about the long-term future. They may not even be in the organization when the strategic plan is supposed to happen. They believe there won’t be much of a future until we perform today. Being a visionary and a good strategist requires curiosity and imagination. It requires playing “what ifs.” What if it turns out there is life on other planets, and we get the first message? What will that change? Will they need our products? What will happen when a larger percentage of the world’s population is over the age of 65? What if cancer is cured? Heart disease? AIDS? Obesity? What if the government outlaws or severely regulates some aspect of your business? True, nobody knows the answers, but good strategists know the questions. Work at developing broader interests outside your business. Subscribe to different magazines. Pick new shows to watch. Meet different people. Join a new organization. Look under some rocks. Think about tomorrow. Talk to others about what they think the future will bring.

4. Narrow perspective? Some are sharply focused on what they do and do it very well. They have prepared themselves for a narrow but satisfying career. Then someone tells them their job has changed, and they now have to be strategic. Being strategic requires a broad perspective. In addition to knowing one thing well, it requires that you know about a lot of things somewhat. You need to understand business.

5. Too busy? Strategy is always last on the list. Solving today’s problems, of which there are many, is job one. You have to make time for strategy. A good strategy releases future time because it makes choices clear and leads to less wasted effort, but it takes time to do. Delegation is usually the main key. Give away as much tactical day-to-day stuff as you can. Ask your people what they think they could do to give you more time for strategic reflection. Another key is better time management. Put an hour a week on your calendar for strategic reading and reflection throughout the year. Don’t wait until one week before the strategic plan is due. Keep a log of ideas you get from others, magazines, etc. Focus on how these impact your organization or function.

6. Avoid speculating? Strategic planning is the most uncertain thing managers do next to managing people. It’s speculating on the near unknown. It requires projections into foggy landscapes. It requires assumptions about the unknown. Many conflict avoiders and perfectionists don’t like to make statements in public that they cannot back up with facts. Most strategies can be challenged and questioned. There are no clean ways to win a debate over strategy. It really comes down to one subjective estimate versus another. Sometimes it is the person who can talk the longest and loudest who wins. Join the World Future Society for a year and read their publication, The Futurist.

7. Addicted to the simple? Strategy ends up sounding simple. Five clean clear statements about where we want to go with a few tactics and decisions attached to each. Getting there is not simple. Good strategists are complexifiers. They extend everything to its extreme before they get down to the essence. Simplifiers close too early. They are impatient to get it done faster. They are very results oriented and want to get to the five simple statements before strategic due process has been followed. Be more tolerant of unlimited exploration and debate before you move to close.

8. Don’t know how to be strategic? The simplest problem is someone who wants to be strategic and wants to learn. Strategy is a reasonably well known field. Read the gurus (Michael Porter, Ram Charan, C.K. Prahalad, Gary Hamel, Fred Weirsema and Vijay Govindarajan). Scan the Harvard Business Review and Sloan Review regularly. Read the three to five strategic case studies in Business Week every issue. Go to a three day strategy course taught by one of the gurus. Get someone from the organization’s strategic group to tutor you in strategy. Watch CEO’s talk about their businesses on cable. Volunteer to serve on a taskforce on a strategic issue. Join the Strategic Leadership Forum for a year, read their publication, Strategy and Leadership, and attend one national convention. Attend The Conference Board’s Annual Conference on strategy where CEO’s talk about their companies. Read 10 annual reports a year outside your industry and study their strategies.

9. Can’t think strategically? Strategy is linking several variables together to come up with the most likely scenario. Think of it as the search for and application of relevant parallels. It involves making projections of several variables at once to see how they come together. These projections are in the context of shifting markets, international affairs, monetary movements and government interventions. It involves a lot of uncertainty, making risk assumptions, and understanding how things work together. How many reasons would account for sales going down? Up? How are advertising and sales linked? If the dollar is cheaper in Asia, what does that mean for our product in Japan? If the world population is aging and they have more money, how will that change buying patterns? Not everyone enjoys this kind of pie in the sky thinking and not everyone is skilled at doing it.  

10. Don’t want to be strategic? Some just don’t feel they want to ramp up and learn to be strategic. But they like their job and want to be considered strategically responsible. Hire a strategic consultant once a year to sit with you and your team and help you work out your strategic plan. Anderson Consulting. The Boston Consulting Group. McKinsey. Booz Allen. Strategos. GeoPartner Research. Corporate Decisions. Plus many more. Or delegate strategy to one or more in your unit who are more strategically capable. Or ask the strategic planning group to help. You don’t have to be able to do everything to be a good manager. You like your nest? Some people are content in their narrow niche. They are not interested in being strategic. They just want to do their job and be left alone. They are interested in doing good work in their specialty and want to get as high as they can. That’s OK. Just inform the organization of your wishes and don’t take jobs that have a heavy strategic requirement.

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