Organizational leaders often talk about strategy, but when it comes down to it, strategic thinking is rarely done. Leaders are often pulled back into tactical thinking due to a variety of factors, from putting out fires to having undue pressure to execute. These pulls create a culture of reaction. There’s no time to actually develop a strategy. It’s too long, complicated, and the outcome is unclear. Why spend time on theoretical, future stuff when we have so much to get done today?
Strategy isn’t just an activity, but a way of thinking. It requires practice, focus, and time. It’s not a thing that you can get done in a couple of weeks with a few leadership roundtable meetings. It’s even harder when your team has never really developed a strategy before or has never been thinking strategically for the past few decades. No special process or technique will magically produce a strategy. You need to first start shifting internal mindsets to think differently.
It’s actually an incredibly common challenge. CEOs that realize the organization is adrift and getting their lunch slowly eaten bite-by-bite by the competition. They declare and establish a major initiative to craft a strategy that will turn things around. They make promises to their boards that their dedicated, senior-level leaders will develop a game-changing approach. After multiple weeks of time and effort wasted in meetings and discussions, there’s nothing to show for it, other than a few fluffy high-level diagrams. Nothing revolutionary. Nothing game-changing.
Why? Because their senior-level leaders did not have the right mindsets. They bop back and forth from daily tactics to a bi-weekly strategy session, where they’ve had little time to prepare, and are mentally overwhelmed with the tactical activities they aren’t addressing by sitting in yet another meeting. CEOs need a new approach to have their vision become reality.
It begins with mindsets. While the reality is these leaders can’t simply unplug from the day-to-day, they can be exposed to what strategic thinking looks like. This starts with shifting thinking from internal to external before they dive into actually creating a strategy.
Shifting to a strategic mindset starts with sparking depth, exploration, strategic dialogue, and transformative thinking. It demands that leaders flex a different set of muscles than they are used to. There are three steps to enabling this shift:
1. Taking the customers’ perspective – While the past can offer critical lessons, a strategic mindset is open to choice and possibility. It is unimpeded by the limitations of present knowledge. Making this mental shift begins with putting yourself in the mind of the customer. Not just what they think about your company, your offerings, or your products – but also their lives – in the context of your business. This takes us to step two.
2. Understanding their context – Outside-in thinkers understand the customers’ contextual environment. This requires understanding their ‘why’ – the contextual catalysts (emotional, functional, social) that bring them to a need. For example, a customer seeking a mortgage of course is looking to buy a house, but why? It may be they got a promotion, just had a baby, or have an ill family member they need to take in. This context is critical, as it helps you consider the bigger picture and new opportunities to serve customers in a new way. This takes us to step three.
3. Challenging conventional wisdom – Long-established, familiar ideas breed predictability and rigidity. They are the enemy of innovation. By having an understanding of the customer and their contextual environment, new perspectives can be drawn. These perspectives will inherently challenge internally-focused, conventional wisdom because they draw from a new outlook. A new outlook that takes into consideration areas of customer need that were never considered in the old, internal mindset, and which will challenge status-quo thinking.
Before a new, revolutionary strategy can be crafted, your team must first build a strategic mindset. While the concept is easily understood, cultivating one is the key to creating that elusive, game-changing strategy you seek.
Andrea Belk Olson is a speaker, author, applied behavioral scientist, and customer-centricity expert. As the CEO of Pragmadik, she helps organizations of all sizes, from small businesses to Fortune 500, and has served as an outside consultant for EY and McKinsey. Andrea is the author of The Customer Mission: Why it’s time to cut the $*&% and get back to the business of understanding customers, No Disruptions: The future for mid-market manufacturing, and her upcoming book, What To Ask, coming in June 2022.