How to Think More Strategically and Beat the Competition

May 12, 2014
9 Min Read

We often lament we’re busier than ever at work, running from meeting to meeting, firing off e-mails and trying to get something done without an interruption every five minutes.

In other words, who has time to think anymore?

If you feel like you’re always putting out fires instead of thinking about how to prevent them, you’re not alone. But that’s a trend that worries Rich Horwath, CEO of the Strategic Thinking  Institute and author of “Elevate: The Three Disciplines of Advanced Strategic Thinking.”

“Companies that don't carve out time for managers to think individually and collectively about their key business issues simply won't exist anymore,” he says.

He explains that research shows that the No. 1 cause of bankruptcy is bad strategy, and companies like Blockbuster, Circuit City and Borders are living proof as “they failed to adapt to the changing needs of customers relative to their competition," He says.

“If a leader doesn't schedule time to think strategically, it simply isn't going to happen,” he says.

But the cost isn’t felt just by billion-dollar companies. Horwath says that failing to think strategically can impact our own careers, no matter our jobs.

Specifically, many industries are continuing to reduce head count, which means that those who keep their jobs need to continually “build their body of expertise to remain essential to the business” and “actively learn from your daily experience,” he says.

For example, each of your work experiences such as a meeting or teleconference or customer interaction provides a learning opportunity.

“Ask yourself, 'What was my takeaway/ learning/ insight?' If you're not continuing to build your expertise through new insights, you are vulnerable to becoming obsolete,” he warns.

Still, even if we commit to being more strategic in our own careers, that doesn’t guarantee others will share our enthusiasm. For those such as project managers, that can cause a lot of headaches.

Horwath says one way that project managers can gain a greater commitment from others to stick to a strategy is finding a common ground “or what you're both trying to achieve.”

Once that is achieved, then you can gain alignment on how to get there, he explains.

“Once you’ve identified the commonality in the goals, it's helpful to establish milestones within your objectives to serve as achievable metrics along the way,” he says. “Sharing the attainment of these milestones while implementing the strategy serves as demonstrable proof that it's working, and will further deepen commitment. “

Horwath notes that those looking to influence others often make the mistake of believing a rah-rah speech on sales goals or some other marketing gimmick will seal the deal.

“The key to influencing others is to share the 'why,'” he says. “Research in the social sciences demonstrates that people's level of commitment increases dramatically when they understand the 'why' behind the request/strategy. Ironically, people don't even have to agree with the reason, so long as they understand that there is a reason.”

Horwath also addresses the dangers of what he calls “fighting urgent but unimportant fires” that can derail strategic thinking.

Tweet: The dangers of “fighting urgent but unimportant fires” that derail strategic thinking via @IntuitQuickBase #Leadership

“Firefighting is the act of continually responding to urgent requests. Unfortunately, many of these urgent requests aren't important to the achievement of one's goals. So, while we may feel productive because we're doing lots of things, these things often don't add any real value to the business,” he explains.

The first step in “preventing fire drills” is to have a set of three to five goals and corresponding strategies, he explains.

“When a fire pops up, ask if it relates to the three to five goals and strategies. If not, then it's potentially something to not attend to or prioritize,” he says.

He suggests another way to avoid a knee-jerk reaction is to immediately say, “Let's think about that."

“This reminds us that the fire may or may not need immediate attention, but more important, we need to think about the situation before acting,” he says.

Research also shows that companies often are lax in recognizing when a strategy needs to change and their inaction can lead to poor outcomes, perhaps costing millions of dollars, he says.

Horwath provides a checklist of when it’s critical to reevaluate your strategy:

  1. Goals are achieved or changed.  When the destination changes, “so too should the path to get there,” he says.
  2. Evolution in customer needs. “As the makers of Polaroid camera, hardcover encyclopedias and pagers will tell you, customer needs evolve,” he says.
  3. Innovation in the market. It’s necessary to keep a “tight pulse” on the marketplace and customers to “understand when innovation, or new value, is being delivered and by whom,” he says.
  4. Competitors change the perception of value.  Horwath says when Subway launched its campaign offering healthier alternatives to other fast food, it “crafted a new perception” and facing anything similar is a powerful weapon or threat, depending on your position.”
  5. Capabilities grow or decline.  “Having led strategic planning sessions for the past 15 years, I’ve observed how challenging it can be for organizations to honestly evaluate their own capabilities relative to competitors,” Horwath says. He suggests it’s critical for organizations to make an honest assessment of where their capabilities stand in relationship to others.

Finally, Horwath says “fires are generally not a reason to change strategy.”

“However, you may have some managers who are all too eager to don the helmet and hose and swoop in to save the day through urgent but unimportant tasks,” he says. “The problem with this firefighting mentality is the opportunity costs it bleeds from your business.”

He says it’s a good idea that twice a year you do a “fire prevention exercise” with the management team that helps you put out “some of the recurring fires by taking action on the things that ignite them.”

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