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Of all the things I get to do on a daily basis with my clients, and also with my own company, my true love is strategy. I have been a student of strategy for over 40 years, and the prospect of designing a plan containing moves constructed to “win the game” gets me pretty excited. Millions of people start ventures each year, and most of them fail simply because there is no strategy. Perhaps it started with an exciting idea, but that dream, without a well thought-out plan, soon turns into a dreadful nightmare.
The term strategic planning is actually a combination of two disciplines: strategic thinking and execution planning. I would like to focus on the first of the two and give you my thoughts on the five habits of good strategic thinkers.
Habit 1: They constantly question their own plan. They anticipate changes by being intuitive and look for opportunities as they present themselves. They believe the game is always shifting and changing, and their plan has to shift and change with it to be successful. Great strategic people do not typically use a hammer and chisel; more likely, they use a pencil and eraser.
Habit 2: They have relentless focus. People who are good at strategy know it’s the process that’s important, not the event. Think about it: most people get excited about the wedding rather than the process of being married. They get excited about the birth of the baby rather than the process of parenting. Folks start businesses because they are excited about starting, not because they’re excited about having a plan to remain in business. People who are good at strategy know it’s the process of moves and countermoves that create the varying degrees of win or loss outcomes.
Habit 3: They practice continuous learning. Good strategic thinkers are always searching for more information. They are naturally curious human beings. They have long memories of past cause-and-effect, and they’re always building a database of moves that have been made and the outcomes of what has already been tried and what has yet to be attempted.
Habit 4: They possess pattern recognition. One of the most powerful tools of a strategic thinker is the ability to recognize patterns. I am always amazed when I see a person who has had the same thing happen to them five or six times and still don’t recognize the pattern. A good strategic thinker synthesizes data from a great many of the right sources before they develop a viewpoint. What holds many people back from being good at strategic thinking is that they’re in too big of a hurry. The temptation is just too great to arrive at a fast (and likely wrong) conclusion.
Habit 5: They take the 30,000-foot view. Good strategists think at a very high level. They take themselves up out of the trenches and develop a long view. Most leaders look directly ahead, putting most of the emphasis on what’s right in front of their organization. While it’s important not to take your eye off the ball, you also have to be aware of what may be beyond or on the edges of the horizon.
Many business owners and leaders are reactive, and they often do not consider the long-term impact of decisions made in a hurry. When they are not intuitive or don’t continue to learn, they run the risk of being a prime target of a competitor with strategic skills. Without comprehensive strategic thinking, your company risks making quick decisions that lack the creativity and insights derived through a strategic thinking process. Leaders may find out later their organization is going in directions that they likely didn’t want it to go. This is not something that can be delegated away.
Senior managers, leaders, and owners in organizations have a responsibility to make the required time for strategic thinking in their planning. It won’t just happen — nor can it be done in a quick half-day meeting. It’s a process that, when practiced with discipline, becomes a habit. In our research, a skill we measure in leaders is futuristic thinking. We measure this competency on a scale of one to 10. Of the millions of highly competent leaders we have surveyed, the average score is 2.7. That is remarkably low. As leaders, we all have a great deal of work to do to develop ourselves to think more strategically about our businesses.