The marketplace was crowded, bustling with pedestrians, street vendors and tuk-tuks. My husband and I were trying our best to navigate the chaos of a typical Indian street scene, but our heads were spinning. We weren’t sure where to turn or even how to cross the street.
Thankfully, our guide came to the rescue, taking us to a stairwell that led up and out of the crowds. Several flights later, we emerged onto a balcony with a sweeping view of the entire city. We could see for miles -- rooftops of neighborhoods, streets and walkways, historic buildings, and shopping districts just like the one below us. Suddenly the city made more sense, and I knew we could find our way around more easily. From our elevated vantage point, what had once seemed chaotic now seemed clear.
The lesson wasn’t lost on me. I have experienced the same feeling many times as a leader, and I’m sure you have, too.
When you see broadly, you can understand the true nature of things. As a result, you can think more strategically.
This idea is captured beautifully in the “get on the balcony” principle of adaptive leadership, which is a practical approach to leading through change.
Just as the city made sense to us from several stories up, business leaders must know when and how to rise above the chaos of day-to-day activities to see the enterprise more clearly. Standing in the swirl of meetings and phone calls all day long never allows you to see the bigger picture. And if you can’t see the bigger picture, you can’t effectively manage it.
You must take the time to lift your head, so you can see clearly:
Reflecting on my balcony experience in India, I can think of three practical takeaways you can use to sort through your organizational chaos and enhance your strategic thinking skills.
As a leader, sometimes you are just too much in the thick of things to see clearly. You might be suffering from information overload. Or perhaps you’re so focused on your own perspective that you struggle to consider other points of view. Or maybe you are allowing trivial issues to cloud the most important ones.
At times like this, you need someone in your life or leadership circle who has permission to challenge you. You need someone who is capable of -- and comfortable – taking you by the arm and escorting you up and out of the swirl.
I can think of several mentors and colleagues who have appropriately pushed back on my thinking on different occasions or helped me reconsider a flawed decision. They helped me see things in a new light, and I led more effectively as a result.
Take a moment and ask yourself:
If you don’t have a good answer for both questions, reach out this week to someone you trust and respect to have intentional
conversation about guiding and challenging you. Make sure they know how much you want and need their perspectives, and that they have permission to help you find the balcony.
Once you’re on the balcony, you will begin to see all sorts of things: shifts in the marketplace, developing trends, emerging threats, and changing consumer/customer attitudes and behavior to name just a few. It’s refreshing and empowering to access new information!
But having the wrong information – or too much information – isn’t useful. So, the second way you can enhance your strategic thinking skills is to identify what you need to know to accomplish the task at hand.
As you stand on the balcony and look broadly across your organization and the operating environment, think of the most pressing challenges you need to tackle. Then ask yourself five questions to clarify what you’re solving for and what information you really need:
◦ External factors impacting our ability to succeed?
◦ Internal factors impeding our ability to deliver?
Use these questions to help focus your information-gathering process on the most relevant inputs. This will help you move more quickly to the third way to enhance your strategic thinking skills.
By asking the right questions, you’ll begin to see patterns and causes. You’ll develop ideas, and your strategy will become clearer. Think of this as “sensemaking,” which is one of the hallmarks of effective leaders.
But it’s not just about the strategy. As a leader, you play a crucial role in helping your team understand how to take action. So not only do you ask, “So what?” You also ask, “Now what?”
This is when you shift your focus from broad back to narrow. As you make sense of the environment, you and your team can develop a detailed plan for seizing the opportunity, starting with a thorough assessment of resources and identification of potential obstacles.
There are many factors to consider as you begin planning for execution, including:
The enemies of sound strategic thinking are found in the chaos and confusion that keep you stuck in the swirl of your personal Indian street scene. You can stand motionless and afraid, you wear yourself out by fighting against the fray, or you can get on the balcony every now and then.
If you find the right guide, know what to look for, and translates ideas into action, your strategic thinking will turn what looked like chaos into a well-ordered plan that moves you toward success.
If you’re ready to think more strategically about your business, I’ve created a comprehensive list of more than 30 questions to challenge your thinking in four critical areas. You can find this list plus much more in a bonus download: “Improve Your Strategic Thinking Skills.” You’ll find this e-guide invaluable for helping you and your team think through many of the factors impacting your business now and in the future.