Planning Strategy in the Midst of Disruptive Change

by Betina Schonberger

We see it in almost every industry: massive change in the way business is done, in the way products are delivered, even in the way people buy things. Strategic planning is essential, but the old methods of meeting behind closed doors, developing a three-year plan, and then making a top-down strategy pronouncement is as old-fashioned as picking up a VHS video at Blockbuster. What’s a leader to do? There are strategic planning frameworks galore to choose from, but here’s the key: It’s not about frameworks. It’s about changing how you think about strategy.

Engage Heart and Mind

True strategy isn’t about using the analytical mind  –  leaders must also engage their hearts and cultivate the human element. This means leaders will need a deep understanding of themselves and how they operate in relation to others.  Making tough strategic choices requires awareness of personal fears and concerns, so that one can understand the root of resistance. It also requires leaders have an awareness of their hopes and sources of inspiration, to be able to push through fears, and be bold.  Have you ever heard of a leader that has made a courageous move say “I did it because the numbers told me to?" No, it came from the heart. 

Know Your Blind Spots

Engagement of head and heart allows helps leaders become aware of their own blind spots, accept them, and then bring in others to fill in capabilities they don’t have. Easier said than done – who wants to admit what they don’t know? That calls for some humility and vulnerability. But, here’s a fact: no leader can possibly be an expert in everything.  Surfacing blind spots by challenging assumptions is what enables leaders to be more proactive in adapting to change, versus reacting to it too late. And, particularly in times of increasing complexity and uncertainty, embracing what we don’t know and using ruthless curiosity to challenge our assumptions, is what really helps leaders create a sustainable strategic advantage.

Create a Culture That Supports Strategy

The answer to disruptive change is creating an adaptive culture. This means people are empowered up and down the line, freeing up executives to look at the long view. Both the organization culture, and leaders’ mindsets, must change.

Strategy can only be effective if the organization’s culture is transparent, inclusive and flexible. Executives must focus on the question: what are the few critical, strategic choices the company needs to make? They can’t be behind closed doors, or in the weeds, micromanaging — in either case, they will simply bounce from crisis to crisis. Leaders have to be talking to people outside the industry and company, experts in the field, and hearing from those inside the organization, to get a complete picture of the changing environment. To make this possible, their managers need to be empowered and entrusted to solve problems, instead of escalating them up to the next level.

Making Strategy Successful

One piece of making strategy successful is maintaining a healthy balance among results, process, and relationship. An inflexible focus on financial results — while ignoring the human dimension and effective, clear processes — is unsustainable. Processes can’t be too rigid, but should be iterative and inclusive. Clarity of process and well-defined decision-making provide people with a foundation without tying them down too much.

On the relationship side, leaders need trustworthiness and transparency. While executives don’t have to know everything, it helps if they can share what they “think” they know, and get input on it. As for results, leaders can’t rely exclusively on analytics, they must trust their guts when making strategic choices around results. 

We often know the right thing to do, but resist doing it until we have data to tell us so.  Lingering too long in “analysis paralysis” can result in decisions made too late, or worse yet, no decision at all. Ultimately, leaders need to be rigorous and focused in the results they are striving for, and have an understanding how processes and relationships can affect their desired outcomes.

Tags : strategic thinking strategic planning strategy leadership change disruptive change

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