No Time for Strategy

This will be my last Blog Article for 2021. Whilst hoping you will find time to slow down in the coming festive days, I wanted to forward you this Blog article so that you can reflect on it during the forthcoming “slower period”. The very first article I published on this Blog, 22 months ago, was entitled “Why do leaders fail to think strategically?”. Nothing has changed since then to change my firm opinion that one of the root causes of various issues that family businesses and SMEs face is due to the lack of strategic thinking and planning from the leaders in such businesses. So this automatically begs the question – Why is it that while business leaders are fully well aware of the importance of thinking and planning strategically, they virtually never have time to dedicate to it and keep thinking and devoting all of their time just for short-term or immediate operational issues?

Research has shown that workplace culture is one of the reasons. A workplace culture where one has to spend some 50 hours per week at his or her desk, powering through emails – is surely not a recipe for innovative strategic thinking. In fact, research reveals that productivity decreases for those who work more than 50 hours per week. What seems to really power creative and strategic thinking is activities such as taking a short walk, especially outside. But that behaviour may well be frowned upon in workplace culture that values only presence at the workplace.

Another barrier to strategic thinking may be linked to our own perception. Research shows, that work is a sign of social status and so by telling others that we are very busy and working all the time, we are implicitly suggesting that we are sought after and important. This means that in addition to the very real demands on our schedules, then, there’s also an implied incentive wired in our brains to lean into the frenzy – as that is a sign of our professional success. Business leaders may therefore be subconsciously reluctant to give up the self-esteem benefits that being always very busy confers – meaning they never allow themselves time to think about strategy.

Given these above pressures, that push business leaders towards constant being busy (like hamsters on a running wheel) and away from any strategic thinking, here are some ways business leaders can fight back and create the space they need to fit in some strategic thinking and planning.

  • First, it’s important to remember that strategic thinking doesn’t necessarily require large amounts of time; it’s not about taking endless sabbaticals or going on some retreat. You actually don’t need time to have a good idea, you need space. It takes zero time to have an innovative idea or to make a decision, but if you don’t have mental space, those things will just fly by. Even with limited time and the same amount of responsibilities, it’s far easier to think strategically if you can clear the decks by doing simple things such as writing down all of your outstanding tasks in one place, so you can properly track them and aren’t constantly interrupted by the feeling that you forgot something.
  • Second, it’s useful to have a clear understanding on where your time is actually going. It’s quite possible that business leaders realise that there are tasks they could combine, defer, or outsource to help buy them an extra two hours per week — more than enough to step outside the daily rush and enter into the flow state of considering the big-picture strategy.
  • Finally, once we’re aware of the implicit “busy = important” frame in our culture, it can become easier to let go of it and adopt another frame that’s more conducive to deep strategic thinking. One alternative view, is that true status comes from having the discretion to opt out of the frenzy. By changing the way we think about being constantly busy — from a marker of status to a mark of servitude — it may become easier to say no to the parade of endless obligations (from catch-up calls to having people reporting to you including you in every email they send or decision they make) that suck on business leaders’ time every day.

It is highly unlikely that responsibilities placed upon business leaders will diminish anytime soon. Hence, without a concerted effort, it’d be easy for strategy — yet again — to slip to the bottom of the to-do list, despite its importance. By becoming aware of the disincentives to make time for strategy — and taking proactive steps to embed strategic thinking into your life and professional schedule — you, as a Business Leader can achieve the goal of actually leading your business strategically, rather than managing from one daily “crisis” to another. I hope that as a business leaders, this will be your resolution for 2022.

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