The pace of change in our world is much more rapid than it was a decade ago, and with the influence of technology that makes access to information constant and infinite, combined with the human thirst for knowledge and the new, this pace is not likely to slow in the next ten. In response to this, I am hearing more and more about the need for true leaders, for those who can think strategically and critically, who can develop innovative and creative solutions, and who can maneuver with alacrity. And I agree.
And yet the capacity for strategic thinking seems to be rapidly dying, if not dead already. Thinking beyond the moment is apparently too difficult, too boring, or too old-fashioned. Somehow, being reactive is in vogue. I think about this a lot. The great teachers all preach being in the moment, that there really is nothing else but the present, the here and now. And oddly enough technology seems to line us up well with this credo. The cell phone rings; it is picked up. The email comes in; it is opened. The tweet is posted; it is read. The text appears; it is answered. We are in the moment, responding to each cling and clang of whatever electronic device we are hooked to. And it is as if this constant exercise of responding has spilled over into all areas of work. We race from meeting to meeting, making lists of things to do, arguing over this tactic or that, and struggling hard to check some of them off so we can feel like we are getting something done. But is this what the teachers meant? I think not.
And for leadership, this reactive drive is disastrous. The very meaning of leader, in my mind, is synonymous with vision. Afterall, who wants to be led by someone who is wandering around, or worse still, running in place? Leaders have followers because they are headed somewhere exciting, compelling, somewhere we are not now. And the big leaders ought to be taking us into the future. Into the future, brightly. They ought to be shaping the future with big ideas, big connections, big innovations. What we are getting instead is mostly management.
There’s nothing wrong with management, except when it stands in for leadership. Simply put, managers maintain, leaders innovate. I dare say, we need innovation now.
So what’s the answer? Strategic planning, believe it or not.
Strategic planning was all the rage a while back, but evidently, at some point, people wearied of vision and mission statements. After all, they didn’t seem to work, right? You spent a day writing up a cool vision or mission (and no one really knew the difference), it would get posted in the break room, and things would swiftly go back to normal. Strategic planning became a lackluster, go-through-the-motions exercise, so leadership stopped even trying.
But all strategic planning was ever meant to be was a practice, a discipline, a rigor to remember to think beyond today. Strategic planning was the time out for reflection from the daily distractions, when everyone was allowed to dream, to reach for the impossible, and to develop the steps together to get there. It was a time to flex the muscle of thinking big (being visionary), out of the box (innovating), and getting full buy-in (collaboration). The reason this fell out of fashion had something to do with it not working, but underneath that was the real cause: people not really knowing how to do it. After all, an organization’s ability to recognize the harbingers of change and stay abreast of the change curve is a highly evolved skill - one that often means the difference between average performance and brilliance.
It’s time to reclaim strategic planning as a vital leadership capability. And it is past time to make strategic planning much more than a day or two off-site to write a tag line. It is time to remember what strategic planning was always about in the first place: leaders leading. What else is there on the leadership front than convening a group of diverse thinkers to look out into the world and make sense of it? Make sense of what’s on the horizon. Look squarely in the face of what looks threatening, and reframe it into an outrageous opportunity. More than just a day or two’s dabble, this is the work of leadership every single day.
Instead of the common complaints about strategic planning - that people spend way too much time doing it (I really doubt this); it doesn’t result in anything; and not nearly enough time is spent on getting the real work done, I would cast it more like:
- people spend not nearly enough time being strategic,
- the time that is spent is wasted for lack of good process on how to do it,
- and lots gets done (busy-ness), but has very little real impact.
So how does this get solved? First, being strategic is not an exercise; it’s a state of mind. It is just dandy to take time away once a year, or once a quarter, to rev the engines by going somewhere new, having an engaging speaker to prime the pump, and using a facilitator to open up the process. But this is just the icing on the cake. Real strategic planning takes place every day, in every meeting, in each conversation. To think strategic planning is ever done, or that anyone is spending too much time on it is ridiculous, especially now when the pace of change dictates that a long-range plan must be, by necessity, both six months (to keep up with change) and 100 years (to keep an eye on the effect we are having) out.
Second, if you don’t know how to be strategic, learn. There is not a human being on the planet who will not be served by learning the difference between strategic and tactical, since this difference applies in every context no matter how high up or on the ground the person is. To prove it, I heard about a Libyan man who had made the decision 25 years ago to continue studying English after Gaddafi banned foreign language instruction in schools. He told Jason Beaubien, NPR reporter, who was aided by this man on a recent trip to Tobruk, that he kept studying English on his own in preparation for this day – the day when he would have the opportunity to tell his story to the world. This simple man made a very strategic decision based on his long view of the future. And it paid off.
So, there is absolutely zero excuse for any person in a leadership position to say “Well, I’m just not strategic.” (By the way, this is a direct quote from the opening remarks of the leader of a client I was hired to assist with strategic planning some years ago.) The response to this should be: “You’re demoted until you can learn.” We need our people, but especially our leaders, to be able to flip between the strategic and tactical all day long. We need this precisely because the tendency to the tactical has reached epidemic proportions in this age of instant technology. And the tactical just becomes busy-ness without the bigger view to inform it.
Finally, busy is a poor stand-in for results. We need all the activity of our workers to have an impact. To make this so, leaders must do their job. Their job is to convene and get to the decisions that then empower their people to do the work. I have never met a human being who cannot be motivated by a clear task, fully within their capability, connected to a desired outcome. If your people are not motivated or producing, one of these things is the problem. And the root of that problem is usually leaders not doing their job. Leading isn’t doing. Leading is thinking. Deep strategic thinking that sets the direction and then checks to see if we’re getting there.
So let’s stop responding to every bleat of our tech gear, every blip of information across our screen, and let’s get back to strategic planning. Better yet, to being strategic, to thinking strategically. If we start looking out regularly to the horizon’s edge and beyond, if we gather and look, we might be surprised at just how amazing what we come up with can be.