Thinker in Residence: A Q&A Interview with Erika Andersen on Being Strategic
March 28, 2013
For me, the most exciting thing about being strategic is that it’s learnable. Most people talk about being strategic as though it’s something you’re born with…or not. And too bad for you if you’re not!
For me, the most exciting thing about being strategic is that it's learnable. Most people talk about being strategic as though it's something you're born with...or not. And too bad for you if you're not! But we've seen over the years, in teaching people to use these skills and this process, that almost everyone can improve their ability to be strategic – and thereby increase the likelihood of creating the business, the career or the life they most want.
Yesterday we introduced you to the newest work by Erika Andersen, Leading So People Will Follow, and today we're going to talk with her about some of the themes she explored in her previous book, Being Strategic: Plan for Success, Out-Think Your Competitors, Stay Ahead of Change. Q: How do the 15 Chapters of Being Strategic build on each other? EA: When I thought about structuring the book, I wanted first to provide an overview of the Being Strategic approach, in a simple, compelling and engaging way. Then, once the reader had a framework for what I was offering and why, I wanted to share and teach the mental model and skills of being strategic. After that I figured I could build on that understanding to share the basics of how to use this model with a group. So that's how I built it: the first chapter provides the context of the complete approach (including setting up the Llewelyn Fawr "frame story"). Part I teaches the model step-by-step, with real world examples and applications. Finally, Part II offers skills, knowledge and insight for bringing the approach to a group, getting them interested in the idea of using it, and then guiding them through the process. Q: In the introduction, you promise that, in Chapter 7 – the Art of Crafting Strategy, you'll demystify strategy and provide a practical and simple selection process. How does that process of demystification work? EA: The demystification process actually begins when I offer a simple, common-sense definition for the phrase being strategic: Consistently making those core directional choices that will best move you toward your hoped-for future. People use the word "strategy" and exhort each other to "be strategic" so often...and rarely explain what they're talking about or what they think it means. And we use it to mean so many different things – from "looking at the big picture," to "focusing on the competition," to really negative things like "being calculated and deceptive," or "pursuing your own agenda at the expense of others." So I thought having a common definition would help at the outset. And within that definition, strategies are those "core directional choices." So chapter 7 is devoted to providing a simple, learnable approach to selecting those core directional choices. I walk through how to do it, and – again – provide both business and personal examples as a demonstration for the reader. The heart of demystification, in my mind, lies in saying to someone, "Here's what this is, and here's how to do it, and here's how it will help." Q: Tell me about the importance of clarity to being strategic and some of the better ways to achieve it. EA: Clarity is essential to being strategic, and we teach people three skills to help increase their clarity. I think of these as the actual skills for being strategic, the mental tools that help you move through the steps of the model effectively: becoming a fair witness, pulling back the camera, and sorting for impact. Becoming a fair witness means getting as neutral and objective as possible about the situation. This is especially important when you have a strong emotional investment in a particular outcome – it's all too easy to lose your objectivity about your current reality, or what's possible. My favorite example of non-fair-witnessing are the contestants on American Idol who literally cannot sing...and yet have convinced themselves that they're going to win the competition! Pulling back the camera means mentally "stepping back from the action" so you can get more context and get clearer about why things are happening and how they're connected. Quite often, when someone is told they're "not being strategic" or are "too tactical," it means others see them as only looking at things from a very narrow, close-in frame: staying focused only on their own actions, needs and point of view. Good strategic thinkers "pull back the camera" to look more broadly at the factors that might be impacting the current situation, or where it might be possible to take the organization, given the landscape surrounding it. Sorting for impact means thinking about how much a particular fact, circumstance or event is going to affect your challenge. So, as you stay in fair witness mode and pull back the camera, you "screen" the data that comes into your viewfinder against your challenge, asking, "How important is this to the problem I'm trying to solve?" Sometimes the answer isn't entirely clear – but far more often than not, it is...and doing this "sorting" process helps you stay focused on the things that are most essential to your success in the challenge you're addressing. Then you put it all together, using these three skills as you move through the model. It may sound complex, but once you get the hang of it, it starts to feel pretty natural. Q: Tell me about your 5-step method for being strategic (define the challenge, clarify what is, etc.) and how best to apply it to modern business. EA: Here are the steps of the process, and how to apply them:
- Decide what you're solving for: Define the Challenge. All too often, business people try to solve problems without first getting clear on them. That can result in "dueling solutions" – a team arguing about how to solve a problem without having come to agreement about what that underlying problem is. Once you have a clear and agreed-upon sense of the core challenge you're trying to address – from "How can we provide a uniquely valuable customer experience that drives our business' success?" to "How can we build a manufacturing team that delivers on our business model?" – you're ready begin solving for it.
- Know where you're starting from: Clarify What Is. Having an accurate and balanced picture of your current reality, relative to the challenge you've defined, is a necessary starting point. It's all too easy to avoid looking at or to under-estimate the less pleasant aspects of your situation: is the slump in July sales just an anomaly, for instance, or part of a larger trend? Being a "fair witness" of your own business is an essential and under-utilized skill.
- Get clear about your hoped-for future: Envision What's the Hope. Especially during difficult times, it's easy to get into survival mode. But having – and consistently articulating – a clear sense of your hoped-for future for the business gives your employees a positive frame for action and offers an antidote to fear. For example, if people know that you intend to double your number of retail outlets over the next five years, that can have a significant impact on both morale and productivity. In this part of the process, you create for yourself and others a clear, three-dimensional statement of what success would look like relative to your challenge.
- See the obstacles: Face What's In the Way. Once you've decided and articulated the future you want to create, it's essential to be very accurate about the obstacles you'll have to overcome to make it happen. Business people – and human beings in general – tend to either over- or under-estimate the importance and impact of obstacles. Here again, it's critical to become a fair witness: to look at the possible obstacles to your vision in a dispassionate and objective way. That makes it much more likely you'll be able to assess them well, and take appropriate action to overcome them.
- Make core directional choices, then get specific: Determine What's the Path. Strategies are the 'intentional pathways' you craft to lead to your hoped-for future. For example, "Concentrate on new product growth," or "Build an international sales force." Strategies are core-level decisions about how to best focus your time and energy. Business people often move straight from vision to tactics, without establishing clear strategies, which can result in uncoordinated effort that doesn't make best use of important resources.
Erika is the founding partner of Proteus International, a consulting and training firm that focuses on leader readiness. She serves as coach and advisor to the senior executives of such companies as GE, Time Warner Cable, TJX, NBC Universal and Union Square Hospitality Group. You can keep up with Erika on her blog (erikaandersen.com), at Forbes (blogs.forbes.com/erikaandersen/), and on Twitter (@erikaandersen).
→ → Check in with us tomorrow for more insight "On Business and Books" from Erika Andersen. → → Read yesterday's Thinker in Residence introduction to Erika Andersen and her newest book, Leading So People Will Follow.