Being Strategic

What does it mean to be strategic? It is a sort of practice, a thinking hygiene.

Simply put, being strategic means that the outcomes produced by our actions are not at odds with our intentions. Even though this sounds simple, it most definitely isn’t. Thankfully, Richard Rumelt has done most of the heavy lifting to unpack what strategy entails, so all I have to do is summarize.

  1. It all begins with intention. There’s something in our environment – the world out there – that we would like to change. Formulated in terms of motion, this intention emerges as a question of “Where do we intend to go?”
  2. To answer this question, we engage in the diagnosis of the problem, which produces a destination: where we decide to go. The next question that we ask ourselves is “How will we get there?” 
  3. Devising a guiding policy answers this question, allowing us to arrive at the approach we choose and move onto the next question: “How will we do it?”
  4. At this step, we come up with a coherent set of actions. Finally, something we can do! As we observe ourselves taking these actions, we are asking ourselves: “What are the outcomes?”
  5. It is here where we usually encounter our first clear signals on whether we’re being strategic or not. Do the outcomes match the intention? The “What did we miss?” question is key, allowing us to compare what we see with where we started from – and repeat the cycle.

At every step, there’s an opportunity for error that puts our intentions and outcomes at odds with each other. 

We are constantly tempted to confuse our understanding of the situation with reality (“it is what we see”) and more often than not, we forget that our diagnosis is more of a hypothesis. 

We are swayed by our embodied strategy to choose approaches that are familiar rather than the ones that are called for by our diagnosis, veering us off course.

Urged to act, we end up making up our set of actions on the fly rather than considering them deliberately.

We are distracted by the multitude of other things in front of us, failing to execute on what we’ve decided to do.

We forget to look back at the original intentions and check if the outcomes are incongruent, too exhausted to reflect on the evidence provided by these outcomes and improve our understanding of the environment.

All of these forces are “water”. We are in them, surrounded by them. We are them.

Being strategic means somehow finding a way to become aware of these forces for more than mere moments – and then find energy to countervail them. Being strategic means facing the headwind of what feels like “the most logical next step”. Strategic moves are usually the ones that aren’t easy. Confusingly, hard choices aren’t always strategic.

The only way to accomplish this is through regular practice. Just like brushing teeth or regular exercise, being strategic always feels like something we have to do in addition to all other things on our plate.

How would one know if they are being strategic? That one is simple. Here’s a test::

  • Do I have a general awareness of the cycle and the headwinds outlined above? It doesn’t need to be this particular cycle. Any robust strategic framework will do.
  • Do I purposefully navigate this cycle as I conduct business?
  • Beyond conducting everyday business, do I have a regular practice that helps me improve my capacity to be strategic?

Add one point for each “yes” answer. Scored 3 points? Congratulations! Otherwise, we still have work to do.

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