Review: Being Strategic

This review first ran in the July 18 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Being Strategic: Plan for success, outthink your competitors, stay ahead of the change

By Erika Andersen

St. Martin's Griffin


Here’s a quick and easy test to see if you’re a strategic thinker.

A new initiative is ramping up at work. You’ve been assigned to the project team.

Within the first 10 minutes of the team’s inaugural meeting, do you propose launching a newsletter, blog, Facebook group, Twitter feed and weekly podcast?

Do you pitch a contest where every employee is invited to design a logo for the project?

Do you then lay out plans to put the winning logo on a shipping container worth of coffee mugs, key chains, mouse pads, lapel pins, pens, paper weights, mantle clocks, picture frames, golf shirts, ball caps, note pads, temporary tattoos, laptop bags, Christmas tree ornaments and other giveaways for staff?

Do you walk the team through the minute by minute logistics of an all-staff pig roast barbecue in the head office parking lot featuring a marching band, clowns, balloons, dunk tank, carnival rides, circus acts, performances by the last five winners of American Idol and a flyover by the Canadian Forces’ Snowbirds?

Or, instead of a laundry list of tactics where money and common sense are no obstacles, do you convince your colleagues to first define and agree on the problem that your team has been assigned to solve?

If the latter, you’re a strategic thinker and a godsend to senior management who want their people to work smarter and actually deliver stellar results on time and on budget.

All of us want to be strategic. Most of us have thought, or said aloud, in a meeting mired in the weeds that we need to be more strategic. Yet few of us can agree on what it means.

Here’s a good working definition, courtesy of author Erika Andersen, founder of an organizational development firm that helps big-name clients develop winning strategies.

Strategic thinking is about consistently making those core directional choices that will best move you toward your hoped-for future.

“Being strategic involves a way of thinking and a set of skills that are applicable to almost any decision, large or small, professional or personal,” says Anderson.

You start thinking that way and building the required skill set by following a five-step process.

Start by defining the core challenge. What’s the real problem you’re trying to solve? The goal you’re trying to reach? Don’t jump to solutions until you’ve nailed the problem.

“Until you have a clear sense of the problem to be solved, it’s impossible to envision what ‘solved’ would look like — that is, the future you want to create.”

Define the challenge by answering three questions. What isn’t working? How can we …? And would this feel like success?

Next, clarify what is. Get a clear sense of where you’re starting from relative to your challenge.

“People tend to err in one of two directions,” says Andersen. “Either they look too narrowly, overfocusing on one or two aspects of the ‘what is’ or they focus too broadly, trying to look at every single aspect of their current reality.”

Look too narrowly and you won’t have all the information you need. Focus too broadly and you’ll get buried in data. And always be what Andersen calls a fair witness. Are you stating things as they really are or as you’d like them to be? Are you neglecting or ignoring uncomfortable and inconvenient facts?

Now focus on what’s the hope.

“For most people, this is the fun part of being strategic: envisioning possibilities. It’s also a key element of most successful lives. People who achieve important goals rarely do it by accident. Aim for a reasonable aspiration. Pick a time frame for success. And imagine yourself in that future.

Face what’s in the way. Take a step back. Look at where you’re starting from, where you want to go and what’s between you and the future. By knowing this, you can figure out what you need to get over, around and through.

And finally, determine the path. Set strategies first, tactics second. Strategies are the roadway. Tactics are the asphalt.

“This step of the process is central to being strategic — and is the point where many people, even if they’ve made it this far, are most likely to run off the rails and just start doing stuff.”

Clear strategies serve to filter and screen tactics. To craft winning strategies, always test for feasibility, impact and timeliness. Can you do what you’re proposing? Is this the best use of limited resources? And is this something that can, and needs to be, done now?

The temptation to jump straight to tactics and create the illusion of progress can be overwhelming. But do yourself, your team and your organization a favour.

Focus first on defining the challenge. Clarify what is. Envision what could be. Face what’s in the way. Find the right path. And banish anyone from the team who suggests a logo contest.

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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