Have you ever been told to be more strategic?

It is that time of year again. The kids are back in school, the air is getting crisp, and everyone is talking about strategic planning for the coming year. Although strategic planning is frequently seen as the activity to focus on, there are several steps that precede it.

Let’s work backwards…Before you can do any planning, you need to decide between options (note: there will always be more to do than can feasibly be done with the time, resources, and finances available). Before you can decide between options, you need to generate options to decide between. Before generating options, you need to evaluate what the heck is going on today—internally and externally. And remember, the best laid plans will go nowhere if you don’t also consider the people strategy—having the right people with the right skills at the right time to actually do the work.

All of this requires some ability to think strategically. Don’t feel bad if anyone has ever told you that you need to be “more strategic” and you didn’t know what to do. Like all skills, some do it well, and others, not so much. But, you too can work your strategic noodler like a muscle that can grow and strengthen over time.

Know your industry. You should understand the industry within which your organization resides. You can learn by reading/watching/listening to business news, reading trade publications, reviewing analyst reports available online, or talking with trusted advisors who will be willing to help you learn. Take advantage of internal training available. Some key questions:

> What technology advances are affecting your industry or will in the future?

> What talent challenges is the industry facing?

> Is the industry growing, shrinking, steady, being threatened by something?

> Who are your competitors and how does your company stack up to them? How is their business going?

> Are there new competitors entering the field that will threaten your company’s market share?

> What key measures are important in your industry?

Know your company. You should understand your company, its history, and key metrics.  You can learn by reading internal documents that describe anything about mission, vision, strategies, culture. Read the annual report, including the CEO’s letter to shareholders and any quarterly reporting that may be available. Talk with executives and business leaders, and trusted advisors who will be willing to help you learn. Some key questions:

> What is your company’s strategy? Your business unit’s strategy?

> What is important about the org’s history that helped drive what it is today and where it will be in the future?

> What measures are most important to your business?

> What are the key issues your business is facing now and in the next few years?

> What people constraints could impact the org’s ability to deliver their objectives?

> What will change internally and externally in the next 1-5 years that will impact your company?

> How do your company’s financials look?

> What are business leaders from your group focused on and why? How were these strategies and initiatives identified?

Change your mindset.  There are things you can do every day to help you think more strategically and “be more strategic”. See if you can find ways to do the following:

> Listen to the issues and the priorities as they are discussed by your business leaders. Be an active listener in meetings and town halls. Really seek to understand business communications that you have access to covering initiatives or financials. This information, along with understanding the industry and company, will help you think more broadly about the decisions you make and the work you do.

> Know your profession. You should be seen as the expert in the work you do. Keep up on trends, best practices, and know what other experts are predicting for the future of your profession and area of expertise.

> Until it becomes more natural, set time aside for strategic planning (alone and in meeting with others). A strategic approach takes time. Make it a regular part of your job. Don’t use the excuse that you don’t have time.

> Participate on a cross-functional team to broaden your thinking, and if possible, a team focused on a strategic organizational issue. Getting out of your own department or business area can be very eye-opening and help you understand more fully the implications of the decisions you and others make.

> Find someone who is known for their strategic abilities and ask them for help, either informally, or formally as a mentor.

> Tie back the work you do to the strategic goals of your company or your business area. If you can’t do this, you should make sure the work you are doing is truly adding value. Ask “why” when you are uncertain of the rationale behind something—in a way that shows curiosity, not contrariness. And make sure you can make connections between the work you are doing and the work of others. Understand the impact on internal and external stakeholders.

> Allow time for considering possibilities. Asking yourself “what could happen if…” will help you be more creative and more easily connect the dots between your decisions and the impact of those decisions.

With some effort, you can improve your strategic thinking skills. You can put a sensible plan in place to do a little every week—to hold yourself accountable for acting on your plan until “being more strategic” becomes a bit more second nature and until others start to recognize your ability to make connections between decisions, ideas, plans, and people that others are not able to see. By thinking a few steps beyond what’s immediately in front of you, you will improve the way you make and communicate decisions, and the way others accept them.

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