Strategic Thinking is a Muscle: Use It or Lose It

841 words, 4:12 minutes

Copyright Moyan Brenn

Copyright Moyan Brenn

In many organizations strategy is treated like a magical mystery power. Everyone wants to be strategic but few possess such awesome powers. Actually, strategy is a skill just like any other skill – learned through action, experience, mistakes and practice, practice, practice.

Here are the building blocks that form the context around strategy:

Objective: The desired quantifiable end point. Try hard to tie the objective to how the organization makes money.

Research: Findings or observations, which reveals the current state of a situation, brand or audience. Insight and strategy are built on research. Without it you are working in the dark.

Insight: An opportunity to connect and address a basic human need. Insight is informed by data, experience and creative thinking. It’s clear, actionable and makes perfect sense after you hear it.

Strategy: The path to navigate the challenge that gets to the objective. Strategy is actionable and the continuation of your insight.

Tactics: Message vehicles determined by the strategy.

Creativity: How we express our positioning and point of view for tactics.

Now that we have a foundational understanding of the piece parts let’s talk about what we need for strategic thinking.

First up, we need focus. Focus on that insight about the audience and focus about a singular approach to reach your objective with that audience. Focus is so important because strategy is mostly about white space – about excluding approaches or thinking that lead you down rabbit holes of delusion!

Now we’ll talk about the path to strategy.

Again, strategy comes with practice. It’s a muscle that needs to be worked consistently. Those rabbit holes of delusion?  Those are usually questions about what. Like what content should we create or what channels should we be in or what offers should we develop.  These are all definitely questions that need to be answered - but in the tactical phase. The strategic planning phase is about how or why.

As stated before, strategy is more about what is not included. This leads to another must for strategy – It must be simple and easily understood.  Too many people think strategy should be complex. Maybe information, data and research to get to an insight can be complex – but the strategy should be easily understood for effective execution to reach your objectives.

But perhaps the single biggest challenge with strategic planning is simply just starting it. Here are four exercises to jump start strategic thinking in your organization.

Process of Elimination

Choosing from several directions based on history and situation and eliminating for simplicity of execution and goal attainment. For attacking strategic initiatives like:

“We need to improve our SMB acquisition rate via digital direct response by 10%.”

Don’t recreate the wheel. You have a history of campaigns conducted and results obtained. You have tribal knowledge and a library of ideas. You can compare and contrast approaches based on the insight for potential options. Map a strategic approach using previous experiences and the desired objective.

Working Backwards

Reverse engineering a problem by starting with the goal and asking why you can’t get there. So, answering questions like:

“What can we do about doubling our market share in Europe?”

You have a clear, singular objective and goal but no strategic experience related to the market. Use the “Five Whys” exercise to get to the obstacles you need to resolve. Ask “Why” at least five times to drill down to the core issue. Those of you with children know this exercise well. As you gather obstacles along the (backwards) path, start to group them into relevant, similar buckets to be solved or determine solutions to each obstacle along the way then group solutions into strategic points.

Connect and Combine

Broad organizational strategies having several challenges and goals and determining how some can be combined to simplify strategy. For addressing challenges like:

“How can we elevate our brand?”

Make two lists side by side - internal and external issues that keep you from reaching goals and internal and external strengths you can leverage to reach goals. Rank your individual issues and strengths in order of importance. Draw lines between issues and the strengths that can resolve them. Multiple lines can connect multiple issues and strengths. Take a look at the connections then combine similar issues and similar strengths to create a simplified strategy.

Storm and Form

Having no known approaches, making assumptions about the challenge and developing the strategic direction through focused ideation (NOT brainstorming). This is for attacking the big ideas like:

“Should we be using artificial intelligence?”  

For blue sky scenarios. No goals, no insights and certainly no direction. When you don’t have clearly defined objectives – make them. Fill the vacuum to set expectations. Get cross functional participation in focused ideation session(s). Filter the approaches from ideation through potential organizational challenges of volume, speed, budget, resources. Good luck!

So, strategy is the path to navigate the challenge that gets to the objective. Strategy is actionable and the continuation of your insight. Strategy should not be complicated. Strategy is more about what is not included than what is included.

How does your organization tackle strategic thinking and planning?