A day away at a work conference can be great. You can walk away with a spring in step, and your head bursting at the seams with new ideas, tools and tactics on how to get the best out of you and your team. This excitement can very quickly lead to overwhelm as you start to think, “how am I going to do all of these things on top of BAU?”. Before you know it, your energy drops, your conference notes (and with it, the ideas and actions) are tucked in the backseat of your car, or filed away in the bottom of your drawer never to be seen again. You walk back into the office and are greeted with an overflowing inbox and a back-to-back calendar, so you slip straight back routine.
The same can happen with goal setting. Whether you did the work I suggested in last week’s article, or have done your own 2020 individual or team planning, you might have experienced the feelings I described above. The excitement and anticipation of a new year, a new decade, a fresh start, closely followed by the reality check that it’s not as if you were sitting on your hands last year….and in fact, you already have a full workload with not much room to move. It’s tempting to put it to one side, planning to pick it up again when you’ve got time, or throw it straight in the too hard basket and think, “the year’s pretty much mapped out anyway”.
Don’t quit before you’ve started!
One of the most common default behaviours my clients fall into is when we’re in a session and they have an 'aha moment', or coming up with a great action and then saying, “oh, but that won’t work because of x, y and z.”. And it’s not because they’re making excuses, it’s because they've already jumped forward into solution mode and they’re thinking about the experiences they’ve had before and extrapolated a conclusion. Sound familiar, << Test First Name >>? And you know how that goes. When you’re mentally checked out, the result follows. It’s like watching your favourite sports team and knowing, in a split second, when they’ve had a brain explosion and a win is out of their reach.
It reminds me of statistical sampling. You enter the population, select some parameters, and then choose a sample to test. Based on that sample (assuming you have used the right technology to develop genuinely random samples), you then extrapolate the results of that sample across your population to enable you to form a conclusion on that population. The underlying assumption being that should you choose a different sample, or in fact, test 100% of the population, you should achieve the same conclusion (subject to confidence levels).
But, should you adjust any of the parameters within your population - perhaps you stratify the population differently or even make changes to the population itself - your conclusion will be different. Same with the sporting game or my clients, should the coach intervene during the game or in a coaching session, they can lift them out of their default thinking and provide them with an alternative perspective or approach to achieve a different (and far more positive) outcome.
So the big question this week is:
What will you do differently to achieve your goals in 2020?
But before you ‘do’ anything differently, you need to ’think’ differently. And what I mean by that, is you need to take a strategic approach to practical success 2020. Don’t just go with the flow. There is so much work going on at the moment, that you could get on that wave and simply ride it out until 31 December…you’d be busy, make no mistake of it. You’d even feel productive….but who knows where you’d land? What you’d achieve? Would you move closer to your vision or, god forbid, further away?
Do you want to let someone else take control of the steering wheel?
The relationship between thinking and actions
Taking a strategic approach has two components: strategic thinking and strategic actions. And you can’t act strategically if you don’t have the ability to think strategically. Strategic thinking isn’t a one-stop shop, either. It’s not the type of thinking that’s reserved only for your strategy sessions with your team. As a senior finance leader you should only be thinking strategically at work. Everything should be for a purpose or cause.
But to understand why that’s so important, let’s take a look at the entire ecosystem of you at work and see what’s going on:
Let me walk you through the components:
Vision: For the purposes of this article, your vision is your 2020 vision which you set last week, or at another time before now. This is a vision that is entirely yours and is how you see yourself in December 2020. A vision serves as your compass: it is the foundation that indicates to you whether you’re doing something that will help you achieve your goals or not. It generally helps you determine whether something matters or not.
Context: This is the world you work in. It is the organisation, industry and team you’re in. It is the boss you work for, the stakeholders and clients you work with, the people you lead. It is the effect on you of the interaction of the elements within your context. It is the part of the ecosystem that impacts you. Context is the stuff above and around you that you don’t control, but that influences your thoughts, decisions and actions.
Thought: This is the thinking you do and the thoughts you have on or about activities and people at work. It informs the decisions you make. Decisions: These are the choices you make at work. Whether it be prioritising one thing over another, or choosing to do something at the exclusion of everything else, to decide means ’to kill off choice’. Actions: Actions are putting the decisions into effect. As you can see from the diagram, it makes things ‘practical’ and tangible. It’s what delivers results. Results: Results are simply the output of the combination of your thoughts, decisions and actions. Thoughts, decisions, actions and results are the activities that you need to do every day, multiple times a day. They basically form the basis of your day job.
Why am I showing you this?
For clarity. You have a vision in mind, some big goals, with some big outcomes and results. RESULTS. As I’ve described above, results are simply the output of the combination of your thoughts, decisions and actions. Like a mathematic equation, a result is simply a product of the numbers and functions in the equation itself. It is not its own entity that you can just ‘do'.
Which means that in order to deliver the results to achieve your vision, not only do you need to do something different, you need to adjust the precedents in the model. Which starts at the vision. What results do you want to achieve?When I am faced with a scenario at work, what are the things I need to think about proactively in order to ensure that the actions I subsequently take will move me towards my vision and achieve those results?After consideration of the different options raised in my thinking, what decision do I need to make that will move me forward towards my vision and achieve those results?Now that I have made my decision, what are the specific actions I need to take? Let’s drill down on strategic thinking
Our brains process at a rate of up to 400 words a minute and we have been thinking subconsciously ever since we were born. It is literally second nature to us to think (if you don’t believe me, have you ever tried to meditate and turn off your thoughts?!) and as a result, we tend to take it for granted. We take it at face value and we have a tendency to believe that our thoughts are the truth. For example:
“My boss has gone around me about something. Something’s wrong.” or, “My leader doesn’t have time for me.’, or “My team are underperforming”. Other examples may include, “My boss has asked me to do this thing. I should do it without question so they know I’m reliable.”, or “My team are too swamped for me to give them more work. I just need to suck it up.”, or “My stakeholders don’t want to talk to me, I’ll just email them.”.
You can see from these examples that this thinking is highly flawed. In fact, you’re probably thinking, “I can’t tell if it’s flawed because I don’t have all the information.” and that’s spot on. We need to be intentional about our thoughts and be proactive in knowing the type of thoughts or type of thinking that will serve you in helping you achieve your goals.
You see, strategic thinking is the ability to consider the context, the specific scenario and then very quickly scan across the landscape to consider the various options and permutations that exist in order to achieve a particular result or set of results. It is not relying on the heuristics - or shortcuts - that exist in the brain to get to a result quicker. It’s about very quickly establishing the desired result, and identifying the most appropriate path to get there.
When you can think strategically, suddenly everything becomes clear. Whilst most people think strategic thinking is about breadth and big picture thinking (and they are two big characteristics I associate with strategic leaders), without a desired outcome in mind, they are just random and distracting thoughts. I've attached a list of questions here that may be useful prompts or reminders for you as you start to approach your work with a more strategic focus.
A common mistake when it comes to strategic thinking (and a great shortcut)
We are really good at making things overcomplicated for ourselves. I think this comes from the technical nature of our jobs where it is often difficult to apply and implement guidance in the standards. Coupled with that, the rapid rate at which the standards and regulations continue to change mean that we’re often second guessing ourselves, wondering whether there is any other guidance/precedent that exists that may render our decision wrong. And the misconception I described above that it means you need to think of every possible scenario and issue that may arise in the process. That often means that when it comes to thinking and making decisions the most common mistake we can make is overlooking the easiest and most obvious solution. Because at the back of our minds, or even at a subconscious level, we’re thinking, “it can’t be that easy, can it?”.
So….when it comes to a quick shortcut for strategic thinking, make sure you consider the easiest, most straightforward alternative as an option. Because even if it isn’t a realistic option, it is a great place to start.
Strategic thinking starts with clarity of outcomes
You cannot think strategically if you don’t have a strategy. And a strategy has an outcome. Know your outcome at every level of the game:What outcome does your industry want (your industry objectives)?What outcome does your organisation want (your company’s mission)?What outcome does your team want (your team’s purpose)?What outcome do you want (your vision)?Then…when you are asked to do something at work, what is the desired outcome for that person or piece of work? How does that align with your vision, your team’s purpose, your company’s mission, your industry objectives, etc?
This is why my model above has the lines running parallel to each other. The reason why this approach works is that it keeps the desired result front of mind. This reduces distraction, increases motivation, therefore increases overall effectiveness. It keeps your team focused on what matters, and what doesn’t, thus encouraging more productive and constructive conversations to happen between team members and their leader.
There needs to be this conscious and very intentional alignment. Without this, you’re just shooting in the dark.
Strategic thinking is ultimately about making meaning
When you can connect the dots between the tasks you perform and the bigger vision and objectives for you and your organisation, what you do takes on greater levels of meaning, thus enabling you to produce even better results. When you can make those connections quickly, it also means that you can deliver those results more efficiently.
Less time, better results. Strategic thinking is the key.
Because meaning matters.
I invite you to make 2020 count.
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