What the f**k is “being strategic”?

23 Sep 2023
Carrie Birmingham

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If you have seen the Wizard of Oz, you will remember the moment of shock when Toto pulls back the curtain to see the Wizard (Spoiler alert!) is a fraud. For me, this is just like the moment it is suggested you need to more “strategic” and you wonder what is behind that curtain.  

When I hear this from coaching clients it’s a “trigger”. I vividly remember the appraisal when I heard my boss say he would, “like me to be more strategic”. At the time, I nodded knowingly and diligently wrote it in my notebook.  It was only a few months later, when challenged by own coach that I realised I felt completely stuck around what it actually meant.  Hence my title! 

She asked me what I thought strategic was, and was surprised to hear myself described “sitting in a room, with a blank sheet of paper, HP pencil, in silence, with a full day to think, with no deadline and rubbing my chin”.  At the time, I was working as an HRD and so this description was pretty far from my day to day reality.  I was sprinting between meetings, and replying to emails late at night.  So I had created a completely unattainable image for myself of what being strategic meant.  I also noticed that my mood about it was “victim”, with a whiny inner voice, “woe is memy job doesn’t let me be strategic”.  No wonder I was getting nowhere fast! 

As you know, I am not a consultant working for one of the Big 4, so I am not going to ask you to write me a million pound cheque and then send you a 200 page slide deck saying what your company strategy should be (probably written by graduates!).  What I can do is help you to explore what “being strategic” means to you so you can experiment in your work.

What does being strategic mean to you?

Usually when strategy is described in books, it is “the strategy” which is not the same as being strategic. Because “the strategy” is something we expect to be created by the people above us for the whole organisation.  It is often absent and I have previously heard leaders say that this means they can’t be strategic but I don’t believe that is true.  

I worked to reframe what “being strategic” meant. This article, inspired me to see ‘being strategic’ as getting onto the balcony to see the patterns rather than getting swept up with the action on the pitch. Whilst not a huge sports fan, the metaphor helped me shift, to imagine myself on the balcony and that helped  me see more clearly what was going on.   So I can be strategic about a problem (i.e. our managers have poor management skills), a future we are facing (i.e. AI will replace some of our workforce) or how we work (i.e. the lack of interaction between these two functions is blocking innovation).  From the balcony I can see that being strategic helps us have a bigger impact, because without it we tend to play small focusing on what is in front of us on the pitch.

What is your Mood around strategy

Roger Martin describes the lure of focusing on planning, because it’s comforting and helps you feel in control.  Naturally many leaders focus on this because it’s easier, and he argues this can be a block to being strategic.  Whereas as being strategic means putting yourself  “out there” by imagining a future competitive outcome or way of being.  This mean accepting the discomfort that you can’t prove in advance that you are right and so you the need to believe (rather than knowing) it will happen and make things better.

Given this not unknowing is uncomfortableI love the quote from Alex Smith; 

“Strategy is not a mechanical equation, it’s an act of mischief.” 

And I notice this idea creates a mood of excitement that invites me to take a leap, a bit different to my ‘victim’ mood. This mood enables me to “be strategic” on a 30 min train ride by creating a mind-map, which imagines how we could shift a problem that everyone knows but is resigned to accepting.  It also helps me accept that the idea or solution may not be right, but “doing nothing” is a strategy that isn’t working. Tony Robbins says that business success is “20% strategy, 80% psychology”and so this shift helps me take care of my psychology.

Think not do 

For me being strategic is also about pausing to think and tune in to what is unfolding within ourselves, team or function.  To resist the lure of getting going (so temping!).  Within Organisational Development (OD) we call this diagnosis, and it is typically done by asking questions or using frameworks to understand the gap between the current situation and the future you would like to create.  By talking to others you collect data about your hunch and start to more deeply understand. My favourite diagnosis question is, “What is the advantage of this being fixed?” and I am often surprised by the answer.  Starting to ask different questions also feels like a safe way to start, and even this creates different conversations.  It also helps me to build out the logic and the idea of what I want to be strategic about.  

Developing my ability to access a mood of mischief has helped me work with complex & messy problems, where the way forward is often unclear. By getting on the balcony and asking great diagnostic questions, I am able to develop some insights about the issues (i.e. what is really going on) whether that is for individuals, in teams or within the wider organisations  (structure, culture) and some ideas about how we may be able to shift it.  Being strategic enables us to have a longer term impact, because we are not just fixing the symptoms in front of us. 

So what?

As you read this blog, ask yourself:

  • What images or metaphors do you hold for what “being strategic” means to you? How are they helping you?
  • What mood does the idea of “being strategic” create in you?
  • What questions would help you understand more deeply what is going on?
  • Where would you like to create an act of mischief?