By Eric Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International 1/30/2013
Takeaways: Strategic Management building blocks include Leadership, thinking, planning, and action. They each deserve study, practice and mastery particularly if you strive to become a highly effective manager or executive.
Lead, Think, Plan and Act are the natural building blocks of sound and effective strategic management. Simply put, looking back on nearly 30 years engaged in business planning, we recognize that it is a well-accepted best practice to be disciplined in using this structure in tackling virtually every life or business challenge that presents itself, but particularly those that have long-term horizons. And, yes, it works!
There is, of course, a lot of sub-text to each element of Lead, Think, Plan and Act. In other words they each deserve study, practice and mastery particularly if you strive to become a highly effective manager or executive, or even to create a fuller, healthier and happier life for yourself and your family. There is good reason the Association for Strategic Planning has adopted “Lead-Think-Plan-Act” as its motto, to reinforce this simple but comprehensive set of principles for successful management of long-term initiatives.
Leading is a Skill
Leading is not just about being the boss or leading one or more people in a particular direction. It’s about mastering leadership skills. These include leading yourself. You might notice that people that stand out as leaders demonstrate that they are exceptionally capable at self-discipline and demonstrate a high skill level in the activity they are engaged in. It could be sales, it could be public speaking, it could be solving complex math problems or it could be communicating with children. Those leaders have first mastered personal skills, thus gaining credibility and then they have mastered skills to lead others. They do this by demonstrating how to do things, by teaching, by facilitating, and just as importantly, by coaching. These folks also generally stand out as good communicators. They have developed good public speaking skills and the ability to put forth thoughtful but brief written communications. They have also learned to distinguish the key roles of those involved in planning and change management to effectively leverage them in achieving the desired outcomes.
Therefore, leadership is really a fairly broad combination of skills, practiced and implemented in concert with one another or by themselves, and mostly focused in the outcomes desired by others. At the highest level of performance, leaders help create shared desired outcomes and facilitate the achievement of those outcomes.
Thinking is both strategic and analytical
Thinking cannot be pigeonholed into brief expressions like “outside the box” or a higher level or being philosophical. In reality, Thinking is also about mastering a set of skills.
Today, the business world looks at thinking in two styles, both equally important. One is tactical or analytical thinking. The other is strategic or systemic/systems thinking. One way to consider the distinction between these two styles of thinking is that tactical or analytical thinking focuses on breaking a problem down into its parts and then solving for each of the parts, thus making the parts the priority. This is valuable because it is highly effective for short term solutions and it helps to remove possibly critical problems. When working on long-term horizons, we need to recognize an important paradigm of analytic thinking, which is the tendency to ignore whole overarching sets of issues that may lead to some avoidable unintended consequences.
Strategic or systems (systemic) thinking on the other hand, focuses on solving for the whole and the overarching set of issues; therefore, the whole is primary and the parts are secondary. The skill set here includes using a combination of the many structures and procedures that the business community has developed to maintain discipline and focus on those long-term objectives, create change and manage it, and often to leverage the collaboration of varied and geographically-dispersed groups of people.
Planning may at first glance tease us into considering long-held beliefs about planning exercises and how they are conducted. In fact, the skill sets for planning have benefited from substantial innovation in process and constantly improving sets of tools, including SAS tools that must be practiced and added to the tool box of every manager and executive. The structures provided by disciplines in project management and the Balanced Scorecard ® system are often integrated into a broader strategic management system to ensure the common clarity of purpose individuals and teams must have to execute day-to-day tasks in concert with the long term objectives. It is not simply coincidence that high-performing organizations have adopted and adapted these skill sets with careful attention to molding them to their culture, and more importantly, making constant adjustments with a focus on the future.
There is a wealth of sharing going on in the business world about how planning is being conducted and how organizations have met their specific challenges. This being the case, getting up to speed is a bit easier than 20 years ago, but it still takes concentrated work and vigilance to craft plans that will succeed and have useful metrics to gauge progress and trigger the need for changes.
Action – getting things done
Acting is generally considered to be about getting things done, right? But let’s understand it better in the context of strategic planning and strategic management, neither of which is really linear in nature, but actually cyclical. This means that long-term planning and managing long-term objectives must be conducted in cycles that fit the time horizons of the projects or initiatives that we have at hand.
Act is also in fact the final building block to be addressed in the cycle. Note here the emphasis on the concept of cycle. There is in fact no single ending act that puts a ribbon on any project or initiative, but instead each project or initiative that ends leads to either another stage or a new project or initiative that builds upon the prior one. The coordination and risk management to ensure high performance of the actions being taken are the responsibility of top executives and strategy practitioners.
Act includes consistent tracking of the key success measures of the initiatives and projects and coordinating appropriate reactions to reinforce the positive outcomes and adjust those that are not measuring up. The skill sets required include a clear understanding of the roles of the various players in the process, organizational structures and cultures (most businesses have more than one of each), and diligent tracking of the progress of the initiatives. Act also involves skills in facilitation, coaching, conflict resolution and the use of the best tools available to track progress and keep all the stakeholders informed.
Each of these strategic management building blocks of effective long-term planning deserves substantially more conversation, and we explore them in more detail in our daily work. If you would like to learn more about this, please visit our website for more information on consulting or training engagements and upcoming webinars.