March 28, 2013
News & Opinion: Thinker in Residence: A Q&A Interview with Erika Andersen on Being Strategic
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.
Once you have a handful of clear, high-leverage strategies, you can use them as a filter to decide specifically what to do; the tactics. For instance, what specific actions will you take to build an international sales force? Is the best use of your resources to invest in the existing sales people, by providing more training or better tools, or do you need to add new people in geographic areas of potential growth? By using your strategies as a screen for action, you can make high-leverage choices about what to do and what not to do...one of the most difficult and most important aspects of good business, especially in lean times.
Being – and staying – strategic in this way gives you a way to navigate through these changing times while positioning yourself and your company for future success. It’s a powerful capability; it offers a way to go from simply saying “we need to be more strategic,” to actually doing it, and reaping the rewards that follow.
Q: What is the importance of asking, “What isn’t working?”
EA: As I noted above, it’s nearly impossible to solve a problem without knowing what it is – especially if you’re trying to solve it with a group! By asking, “What isn’t working,” you can start to hone in on the actual problem or challenge.
Q: Would you classify your approach as an advanced form of problem solving? Why?
EA: Hmmm. Interesting question. Maybe – I guess it depends on how you define problem solving! If you define problem-solving broadly as a process of moving from the given state to a goal state, then yes.
I don’t generally think of it as problem solving, though, because using this approach often involves a strong aspirational component. Most problem solving is focused on resolving a current issue to achieve an pre-defined goal. (E.g, let’s increase the speed of this assembly line so it can produce 200 action figures an hour, vs. 150). When you’re being strategic in the sense we’re talking about here, you’re generally thinking about creating a future that doesn’t yet exist, and that you probably haven’t defined yet. It’s a process for envisioning and then achieving a possible goal state, rather than figuring out how to resolve a problem that’s preventing you from reaching an already defined goal. In other words, this approach includes visioning, which may not be a component of most problem solving situations.
However, having said that, I have found that this approach and set of mental skills is almost infinitely scalable up or down – you can use it to grow your business OR get that assembly line ramped up.
Q: How do you recommend one develop and choose strategies – or core directional choices – that will best move an organization forward?
EA: At the risk of being redundant, we’ve found the best way to create powerful strategies is to first have the context provided by going through this process: knowing what your challenge is, where you’re starting from relative to that challenge, what success would look like, and what’s in the way. And my enthusiasm for and commitment to that order of thinking is purely practical: strategies are the “pathways” that lead you from where you are to where you want to go (the future where your challenge is addressed), while overcoming or avoiding the obstacles. So you have the best chance of building good and useful pathways if you’ve gotten clear on those elements before creating your pathways.
There’s another support we offer for creating good strategies: it’s called “sorting for FIT.” FIT is an acronym that stands for Feasible, Impactful, and Timely. As you’re creating your strategies, you need to make sure they’re feasible – that is, that you have the skills, resources and bandwidth to do them; and that they’re impactful – that they’ll give you a “big bang for the buck,” a good ROE in moving toward your vision. And you need to make sure they’re timely, which covers two things, “order” – are these the directions you need to move first? And “opportunity” – do these strategies take good advantage of circumstances that exist now (and may not exist later)?
Q: Tell me more about the distinction between strategy and tactics.
EA: Strategies are, as I noted above, core-level statements of intention. They’re a way of saying “This is a direction we want to move.” Strategies aren’t specific things you can run right out and do. Tactics ARE things you can run right out and do; they’re the specific actions you’ll take to implement your strategies For example, “Build a skilled, motivated workforce,” is a strategy. “Work with an outside consultant to review and redesign our compensation plan to be more in line with the rest of our industry” is a tactic for implementing that strategy.
Q: You spend a fair amount of time in Being Strategic talking about revisiting and revising strategy. Why is that important?
EA: I called the book Being Strategic at least partly because I wanted to convey that this approach is most useful and powerful when it becomes a habit of mind and action; that it’s not a one-time deal. If you create a clear vision and strategy “map” based on this approach, and don’t come back to it…then over time it will no longer reflect reality. It’s important to keep it real, live and true to your situation – then it’s a powerful tool for creating the business, the career, the life you most want.
Q: How can being strategic benefit one’s personal life?
EA: Over the years, I’ve found this process almost universally applicable. In Being Strategic, I use the example of envisioning and creating my dream house overlooking the Hudson – a true story with a hugely beneficial outcome!
I also used this process to find my wonderful husband Patrick. After my first marriage broke up, I decided I wanted to draw upon everything I’d learned to create the relationship I really wanted. I defined my challenge: “How can I create a core relationship of mutual love, friendship, passion, and support that will grow and flourish throughout both our lives?” Then I got clear about my current state, my hoped-for future, and the obstacles to achieving that future, both inside me and around me. With that understanding in place I created strategies and tactics for achieving my vision, the relationship I truly desired. And I met Patrick about 3 months later.
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.
About Sally Haldorson
Sally Haldorson's job as 800-CEO-READ’s General Manager is to make 800-CEO-READ a great place to work for our employees, and a consistently high-performing customer service organization for our clients, authors, and our partners in the publishing industry. In addition to her General Manager duties ensuring collaboration, integration, and quality, she reads, writes, reviews, curates, and edits for the company. Helping craft The 100 Best Business Books of All Time used parts of both skill sets. Outside of work, she is most likely to be found hitting a tennis ball around or hanging out with her boys (husband, child, dog) at home.