“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.” – Winnie-the-Pooh, A.A. Milne, 1926
Bump, bump, bump! Does this sound like your days, weeks, months. . . maybe even years? Are you acting purposefully? Are you acting with intention? Or do you find yourself too busy to think?
The biggest challenge of leading in a VUCA world is the huge demand placed on a your time. If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself running ragged, with little time for strategic thinking. The result? You postpone dealing with critical strategic change. Or, in the worst case, strategic issues go unresolved. Bump, bump, bump!
The truth is that busyness kills leadership. Busyness is the consequence of mindless execution due to neglected strategic thinking. When strategy and vision fails the urgent moves in and crowds out the important. In a VUCA world chasing the urgent, whilst neglecting the important, is the path to irrelevance. It results in poor decision-making, inefficient allocation of resources and low morale.
“Every CEO has to spend an enormous amount of time shuffling papers. The question is, how much of your time can you leave free to think about ideas? To me the pursuit of ideas is the only thing that matters. You can always find capable people to do almost everything else.” – Michael Eisner, Imagineer Eisner On Creative Leadership
Effective leaders make time for strategic thinking, they make time to think about the future.
Executives Lack Strategic Clarity
Paradoxically, it’s when things are uncertain, fast-moving and ambiguous that you need to slow down, take time to think strategically and reflect deeply. A survey of more than 1,800 executives, including 480 C-suite executives found the following:
- 56% say their biggest challenge is ensuring day-to-day decisions are in line with strategy.
- 56% have challenges allocating resources in a way that really supports the strategy.
- 50% consider setting a clear and differentiating strategy a significant challenge.
- 52% do not feel their company’s strategy will lead to success.
- 64% agree that their company has too many conflicting priorities.
Unless you deliberately set aside time in your calendar for strategic thinking, your time will be sucked up with urgent meetings and daily interruptions.
Learning Strategic Thinking from Bill Gates
Bill Gates understands the importance of making time for strategic thinking.
Whilst Bill Gates was CEO of Microsoft he would schedule one or two of what he called think weeks each year. During a think week Bill Gates goes to a private retreat. A secluded place where employees, friends and family are banned. It’s a period of uninterrupted time for Gates to disconnect, read and reflect, free from the distractions of the outside world.
“He starts the morning in bed poring through papers mostly by Microsoft engineers, executives and product managers and scribbling notes on the covers. Skipping breakfast, he patters upstairs in his stocking feet to read more papers. Noon and dinnertime bring him back downstairs to read papers over meals at the kitchen table, where he has a view of the Olympic Mountains. Thursday’s lunch was grilled cheese sandwiches and clam chowder. His main staple for the week, he said, is a steady stream of Diet Orange Crush. Four days into this Think Week, Mr. Gates had read 56 papers, working 18 hours straight some days. His record is 112 papers.” – Robert Guth, In Secret Hideaway, Bill Gates Ponders Microsoft’s Future
It was during these secluded times that Bill Gates would read and catchup on the future of technology, speculation on the next hot products and review papers from Microsoft engineers. It was the result of these think weeks that some of Microsoft’s most significant innovations were conceived, one such innovations was Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.
On the 26th of May, 1995, Bill Gates returned from one of his think weeks and sent the famous ”The Internet Tidal Wave” memo to Microsoft executives. The memo confirmed that Microsoft had missed the opportunity presented by the internet and committed the company to catching up quickly.
“After 10 hours of browsing, I had not seen a single Word .DOC, AVI file, Windows .EXE (other than content viewers), or other Microsoft file format. I did see a great number of Apple Quicktime files. All of the movie studios use them to offer film trailers.” – Bill Gates, ”The Internet Tidal Wave”
“Now I assign the Internet the highest level of importance. In this memo I want to make clear that our focus on the Internet is crucial to every part of our business. The Internet is the most important single development to come along since the IBM PC was introduced in 1981.” – Bill Gates, ”The Internet Tidal Wave”
Without Bill Gates making time for strategic thinking, Microsoft would have completely missed the opportunity presented by one of the biggest innovations of modern times.
When last did you set aside time to seriously consider “what’s next”? The faster the pace of change the more important it becomes to make time for strategic thinking.
Strategic thinking demands you take an outside-in perspective, looking for weak signals of impending change. To remain effective you need to keep abreast of external trends, drivers and forces and the implications for your business.
This kind of strategic thinking doesn’t just happen. You need to deliberately set aside time. Do so today by taking the following three steps.
- Block out strategic thinking time in your calendar. Set a aside regular time devoted to strategic thinking. Whilst we don’t all have the luxury of taking off a couple of weeks a year dedicated to strategic thinking, we can all set aside at least some time. Look at your calendar and start by blocking out 2 days dedicated to strategic thinking within the next three months.
- Prepare a strategic thinking agenda Making maximum use of your thinking time is important. To prepare for your strategic thinking retreat make a list of agenda topics you want to address during your time away. You can develop your agenda over a few weeks. Next add to each agenda item a list of questions you need to answer and decisions you need to make.
- Gather stimulating reading material Put together a list of reading material, books, articles and research papers for your reading time during your strategic thinking retreat. Reach out to your peers, friends, advisors, mentors, suppliers and customers for recommendations.