This topic of strategy vs operations has always been a discussion point with my Executive coaching clients. It’s comes up even more now with the uncertainty of the pandemic and ever-changing guidelines. For example, working with people in retail has meant that one day the stores are open and the next day the stores are mandated to close, with differing requirements by region. Having to respond to these types of operational changes is mandatory, time consuming and draining. How does a leader prioritize time, energy and headspace for strategic initiatives with this constant operational firefighting, let alone get others on-board?
Strategic vs Operational Thinking
Never has a company asked me to support their leader on being MORE operational. It’s not their operational thinking and focus that needs to be developed, especially if they’ve just been promoted to a more senior role. It’s usually about helping the leader develop their strategic thinking.
Operational thinking is required too. Strategic thinking is of no value if it doesn’t get implemented operationally. Ensuring operations are well-thought through and running smoothly is important to success. If operational thinking isn’t happening during the execution there won’t be any operations or business to worry about in the future.
A successful business needs both sound strategic thinking to chart its course while having optimal operational thinking to deliver the day to day requirements.
What is Strategic Thinking?
It’s the intentional thought process a leader does to figure out how to achieve long-term success for the organization, team, initiative or project (depending on the leader’s scope). It’s about focusing on the future and working back how to lay the foundation for success. It involves lots of critical thinking skills like analysis, conceptualizing, identifying patterns and options, synthesize making choices and engaging. It’s about creating connections or links between different ideas, sources of information and opportunities for greater synergy or success.
Big A vs Little a Agendas
The concept of Big A and little a agenda is from my coach training and I teach my clients about it too.
When I work with clients we define their leadership development goals for the coaching. The ‘Big A Agenda’ is this bigger, overarching goal. At each session, the client brings situations and topics from their work life for which they want coaching. These daily topics are the ‘little a agenda’. In the coaching we create links between the little a agenda to the Big A Agenda so that each coaching session progresses them towards their leadership development goal. It’s the notion that every step you take is one more step in your legacy.
This concept gives you an opportunity to link operational topics or issues back to strategic priorities and opportunities while working with people on the execution. It’s a great chance for you as the leader to re-affirm the link between the daily operations and the businesses strategic goals (as there should be a link).
Tips to Balance Strategy vs Execution
There are no hard and fast rules on this, as it depends on the business and its current situation. Here are some ideas:
• Remember this is a big part of your job. If you’re not doing this type of thinking for your business, area or function than who is? Every leader has some level of responsibility for strategic thinking. This means delegating and empowering others to do what they need to do so you have some time for this priority.
• Set aside thinking time in your schedule before other people fill it up with operational topics. Put time in your calendar for your priorities before other people take your time for their priorities. Book it off. Call it something that doesn’t sound dispensable to others if they can see your calendar. Make it a “meeting” rather than solo time as solo time is easier to relinquish. Time is reported as the #1 barrier to strategic thinking.
• Change your location. Take yourself out of your usual environment to trigger your brain that this is different than daily business. Also, it will minimize interruptions and distractions. Go for a walk. Sit in another room. Be in nature. Watch traffic in an intersection of traffic. Sit in your car (in the driveway even).
• Stimulate thinking through a different lens. Strategic thinking is about the future. How can you put yourself into a different perspective than today’s position to think differently? A client and I once went to a museum together (when we could) and walked around assessing what we were seeing through the lens of his business. What would this museum piece tell me about my business? How could an exhibit inform my business’ future and/or success? What can I learn from this museum theme?
• Talk to people who are outside your regular circle. My last 2 articles have been on bias – the Fundamental Attribution Error and Confirmation Bias. To minimize bias, it’s helpful to have an outside perspective, a person very different from yourself to highlight blind spots of which you’re not aware. Also, read information and data from different sources to broaden your input and perspectives.
• Listen with an open mind and question, question, question again. Listen to what is being said while suspending your own judgment and assumptions. Listen to what is said and not said. Question what you hear, what is underneath what is being said. Be deep in your discussions, curious, not superficial, not taking what is said on face value.
In summary, prioritize your time to do what only you can do which is the strategic thinking for your area of responsibility. Delegate and empower others to execute so you can deliver on your responsibility. As you deal with operational issues, how could you do it strategically when possible thereby getting the best of both worlds?
Book a COMPLIMENTARY coaching session with me here for support in further developing your leadership to balance the strategic vs operational. What would make you more effective?
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