HBR: 5 Strategy Questions Every Leader Should Make Time For

Below is a blog post from Harvard Business Review. Are you taking time out of your busy schedule to strategize? It requires substantial periods of careful, undisturbed reflection and consideration. Leadership is not just about doing things, it’s also about thinking. Make time for it!

5 Strategy Questions Every Leader Should Make Time For

Have you ever noticed that when you ask someone in your company, “How are you?” they are more likely to answer “Busy!” than “Very well, thank you”? That is because the norm in most companies is that you are supposed to be very busy – or otherwise at least pretend to be – because otherwise you can’t be all that important. The answers “I am not up to much” and “I have some time on my hands, actually” are not going to do much for your internal status and career.

However, that you are very busy all the time is actually a bit of problem when you are in charge of your company or unit’s strategy, and responsible for organizing it. Because it means that you don’t have much time to think and reflect. And thinking is in fact quite an important activity when it comes to assessing and developing a strategy.

The CEO of a large, global bank once told me: “It is very easy for someone in my position to be very busy all the time. There is always another meeting you really have to attend, and you can fly somewhere else pretty much every other day. However, I feel that that is not what I am paid to do. It is my job to carefully think about our strategy.”

I believe his view is spot-on. And there are other successful business leaders who understand the value of making time to think. Bill Gates, for example, was famous for taking a week off twice a year – spent in a secret waterfront cottage – just to think and reflect deeply about Microsoft and its future without any interruption. Similarly, Warren Buffett has said, “I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think.”

If you can’t find time to think, it probably means that you haven’t organized your firm, unit, or team very well, and you are busy putting out little fires all the time. It also means that you are at risk of leading your company astray.

As famous management professor Henry Mintzberg has described, much of strategy is “emergent.” It is often not the result of a strategic plan just being implemented, but driven by opportunistic responses to unexpected events. Stuff happens. Companies often engage in new activities – customers, markets, products, and business models – serendipitously, in response to external events and lucky breaks. But this also means that business leaders need to make ample time to reflect on the configuration that has emerged. They need to systematically analyze and carefully think it through, and make adjustments where necessary.

Many leaders don’t make that time – at least not enough of it.

If you are in charge of an organization, force yourself to have regular and long stretches of uninterrupted time just to think things through. When you do so – and you should – here are five guiding questions that could help you reflect on the big picture.

  1. What does not fit? Ask yourself, of the various activities and businesses that you have moved into, do they make sense together? Individually, each of them may seem attractive, but can you explain why they would work well together; why the sum is greater than the parts?

As the late Steve Jobs explained to Apple’s employees when he axed a seemingly attractive business line, “Although micro-cosmically it made sense, macro-cosmically it didn’t add up.” If you can’t explain how the sum is greater than the parts, re-assess its components.

  1. What would an outsider do? Firms often suffer from legacy products, projects, or beliefs. Things they do or deliberately have not done. Some of them can be the result of what in Organization Theory we call “escalation of commitment.” We have committed to something, and determinedly fought for it – and perhaps for all the right reasons – but now that things have changed and it no longer makes sense, we may still be inclined to persist. A good question to ask yourself is “what would other, external people do, if they found themselves in charge of this company?”

Intel’s Andy Grove called it “the revolving door” when discussing strategy with then-CEO Gordon Moore; let’s pretend we are outsiders coming new to the job, ask ourselves what they would do, and then do it ourselves. It led Intel to withdraw from the business of memory chips, and focus on microprocessors. This resulted in more than a decade of 30 percent annual growth in revenue and 40 percent increase in net income.

  1. Is my organization consistent with my strategy? In 1990, Al West, the founder and CEO of SEI – the wealth management company that, at the time, was worth $195 million – found himself in a hospital bed for three months after a skiing accident. With not much more to do than stare at the ceiling and reflect on his company’s present and future, he realized that although they had declared innovation to be key in their strategy, the underlying organizational architecture was wholly unsuited for the job. When he went back to work, he slashed bureaucracy, implemented a team structure, and abandoned many company rules. The company started growing rapidly and is now worth about $8 billion.

As a consequence of his involuntary thinking time, West did what all business leaders should do: he asked himself whether the way his company was set up was ideal for its strategic aspirations. What would your organization look like if you could design it from scratch?

  1. Do I understand why we do it this way? When I am getting to know a new firm, for instance because I am writing a case study on them, I make it a habit to not only find out how they do things but also explicitly ask why. Why do you do it this way? You’d be surprised how often I get the answer “that’s how we have always done it” [while shrugging shoulders] and “everybody in our industry does it this way.”

The problem is that if you can’t even explain why your own company does it this way, I am quite unconvinced that it could not be done better. For example, when more than a decade ago I worked with a large British newspaper company, I asked why their papers were so big. Their answer was “all quality newspapers are big; customers would not want it any other way.” A few years later, a rival company – the Independent – halved the size of its newspaper, and saw a surge in circulation. Subsequently, many competitors followed, to similar effect. Yes, customers did want it. Later, I found out that the practice of large newspapers had begun in London, in 1712, because the English government started taxing newspapers by the number of pages they printed — the publishers responded by printing their stories on so-called broadsheets to minimize the number of sheets required.  This tax law was abolished in 1855 but newspapers just continued printing on the impractically large sheets of paper.

Many practices and habits are like that; they once started for perfectly good reasons but then companies just continued doing it that way, even when circumstances changed. Take time to think it through, and ask yourself: Do I really understand why we (still) do it this way? If you can’t answer this question, I am pretty sure it can be done better.

  1. What might be the long-term consequences? The final question to ask yourself, when carefully reflecting on your company’s strategy and organization, is what could possibly be the long-term consequences of your key strategic actions. Often we judge things by their short-term results, since these are most salient, and if they look good, persist in our course of action. However, for many strategic actions, the long-term effects may be different.

Consider a practice adopted by many of the UK’s IVF clinics – of selecting only relatively easy patients to treat, in order to boost short-term success rates (measured in terms of number of births resulting from the treatment). The practice seems to make commercial sense, because it (initially) makes a clinic look good in the industry’s “League Table.” But, as my research with Mihaela Stan from University College London showed, it backfires in the long run because it deprives an organization of valuable learning opportunities which in the long run leads to a lower relative success rate.

When you start a new strategy or practice it is of course impossible to measure such long-term consequences ex-ante, however, you can think them through. For instance, when we asked various medical professionals in these clinics what might be the benefits of treating difficult patients, they could understand and articulate the learning effects very well. They could not measure them, but with some careful thought they could understand the potential long-term consequences before even engaging in the strategic action. Actions often have different effects in the short and long run. Sit down and think them through.

Strategy, by definition, is about making complex decisions under uncertainty, with substantive, long-term consequences. Therefore, it requires substantial periods of careful, undisturbed reflection and consideration. Don’t just accept the situation and business constellation you have arrived at. Leadership is not just about doing things, it is also about thinking. Make time for it.

Are you a “Come On” leader, or a “Go On” leader?

Originally posted on Why Lead Now:

I recently went out for some drinks with friends of mine who both work in the medical profession. Each of us being in leadership roles of some form, the discussion turned to styles of leadership. They both agreed that, in their line of work, you couldn’t work with junior team members – new doctors, and nurses; and tomorrow’s leaders of the health system – simply by telling them what to do. You had to be there to show your team how things should be done, and then let them take the reins whilst you step back.

This reminded me of a speech I’d heard about four years ago. I don’t remember all of the details, but I remember the key opening line. In life, you’ll come across two types of leaders. There are “Come On” leaders – leading from the front, setting the example, and pioneering the way for their…

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Weaving Influence: Are You A Thought Leader?

Below is a blog post from Weaving Influence. How do you nurture your own sense of leadership?

Are You A Thought Leader?

A popular term in today’s digital world of content creation, “thought leadership” is not really a new concept at all. In fact, The Oxford English Dictionary gives its first citation for the phrase in 1887 by describing Henry Ward Beecher as “one of the great thought-leaders in America.” It was revived or reinvented by marketers in the 1980s, and in 1990 was used in a Wall Street Journal marketing article by Patrick Reilly.

When defined, a thought leader is an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded. But in a world where people find desired information in thousands of locations – their favorite online publications, blogs, social platforms or served up in email newsletters and podcasts – becoming a thought leader is a much more common thing.  Therefore, competition is plentiful.

During my first month at Weaving Influence, I’ve been fortunate to work with a number of amazingly talented thought leaders and authors. I’m learning more about them and their contributions to our world through their books and the original content they create. Working smarter, being more fulfilled in life, becoming the leader you aspire to become – it’s much like attending an insightful, personal development seminar every day! These individuals are truly talented thought leaders who are sharing their insights into our world to benefit those who are willing to open their minds and become a better person.

Are you a thought leader? Being known as one seems like a fairly hefty mantle to wear. But the truth is, many of us are thought leaders on a smaller scale, we just don’t realize it.

You may be a thought leader among your peers and circle of friends, regularly offering insight to your area of expertise: Where should we have dinner for our anniversary? When visiting Chicago, what should we plan to see? Do you know how to plant a raised vegetable garden? That’s how thought leadership begins, with expertise that blossoms into widely-respected knowledge in your specialized field of expertise.

What will you do with your knowledge? How will you nurture it and grow it to become larger than life?

You can learn how by emulating the leaders that you aspire to be like, and using your own knowledge to help your peers, the next generation and potentially generations to come.

To become recognized as a thought leader takes diligence and hard work while you are gaining experience in your craft, and while spreading your insights. But it’s never too late to start. Large or small scale, the world becomes a better place when we share insights and lessons learned from each other.

Be a coach, a student mentor, or an admired leader. Create thought leadership in your own world and nurture it. Don’t be overwhelmed by the concept, just feed it. Watch it grow and many will reap the benefits.

Tell me something! How do you nurture your own sense of leadership?

5 Secrets to Learning Better

Below is a blog post from LeadingBlog.

5 Secrets to Learning Better

With exam season upon us in the northern hemisphere, experimental psychologist Tom Stafford has offered some lessons for learning better. He and his colleague Mike Dewar, studied how people learn to play an online game. “Computer games provide a great way to study learning: they are something people spend many hours practicing, and they automatically record every action people take as they practice. Players even finish the game with a score that tells them how good they are.” 

Here is what they found:

1.    Space Your Practice. Cramming isn’t the answer. You should space out your studying. People who spaced out their practicing scored higher. “In fact, the longer the gaps the higher the scores.”

2.    Make Sure You Fail Occasionally. People that were the most inconsistent in the beginning had better scores later on. People who did better didn’t worry about making mistakes. They explored and made mistakes.

3.    Practice the Thing You’ll be Tested On. If your exam is an essay, then you need to practice writing. If it is fact retrieval then you need to practice retrieving information. Practice exams make good sense.

4.    Structure Information, Don’t Try to Remember It. There is almost no correlation between trying to remember something and actually remembering it. Our brains remember by making connections to existing memory. “You need to reorganize the information in some way – whether by making notes of your notes, thinking about how what you’re reading relates to other material, or practicing writing answers.”

5.    Rest and Sleep. Studying all night doesn’t help you. “New research shows that a brief rest after learning something can help you remember it a week later. Other experiments have shown that a full night’s sleep helps you learn new skills or retain information. Even napping can help consolidate your memories, and maybe even make you more creative.” Get your sleep. It’s more important than another hour of study.

A One Minute Tip for Changing the Way You Set Goals

Originally posted on How We Lead:

Business People Shaking Hands At DeskAll good performance starts with clear goals. That’s why Spencer Johnson and I made sure that the First Secret of The New One Minute Manager® is One Minute Goals. This is illustrated perfectly in the children’s story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when Alice asks the Cheshire Cat which path she should take. The Cheshire Cat responds, “That depends on where you want to go.” When Alice says she doesn’t know, the smiling cat says, “Then it doesn’t matter.” The same is true in the work environment. If people don’t have a clear understanding of where they are going and what they need to focus on, they can’t perform at their highest level.

The secret of setting One Minute Goals is for the leader to work side by side with each direct report to write goal statements that include performance standards, so that both people agree on what needs to…

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What Do Workers Want? Better communication with their leader for starters

Originally posted on Blanchard LeaderChat:

Business InterviewEarlier this month, I noticed that a few of my Facebook friends were posting a link to a Wall Street Journal post titled What Do Workers Want from the Boss?

The article describes the results of a Gallup study showing that employees want communication, a trusting relationship, and clear measurement standards from their immediate supervisor.

I messaged some of my friends to learn why they posted the article. They all replied that the findings matched their own experience and they wanted to share. In fact, each of them told me about how a negative experience in one of these areas had resulted in their search for a new place to work.

That’s pretty sad.

The findings identified in the Gallup study are consistent with those uncovered through research by The Ken Blanchard Companies on the subject of Employee Work Passion. We frame these elements as Connectedness with Leader, Feedback, and

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The Power of Noticing: What the Best Leaders See by Max H. Bazerman is fantastic book. Below is an excerpt from the book about leadership and first-class noticers.

A NOTICING MIND-SETThe Power of Noticing: What the Best Leaders See

Before reading further, try to remember a crisis that surprised you or your organization. (Stop and really do this.) Now imagine that you are telling a close friend, someone from outside the organization, the story of that crisis: what happened, who did what, and what resulted. Your friend’s response would very likely be “Why didn’t anyone see that coming?” Keeping in mind the actual crisis, think through what your answer would be. (Again, please actually do this before reading ahead. Even better, write your answer on a piece of paper.)

Was your response something like one of the following?

  • No one could have predicted what happened.
  • The odds of its happening were so low that it didn’t seem worthy of consideration.
  • It wasn’t my job to see the warning signs.
  • There are so many possible crises at any given moment that we couldn’t reasonably have known that this was the one that would get us.

Or was your response something more like one of these?

  • I didn’t examine what threats were confronting our organization.
  • I didn’t think about how other parties could affect our organization.
  • I didn’t ask others about what data were missing.
  • I didn’t search hard enough for more options for my organization to consider.

Do you see the difference between the two lists? The first consists of external attributions. These explanations focus on factors outside your control; the problem was the situation, not you. In contrast, the second group consists of internal attributions for the failure, things you realize you could have done better. Most crises are due to both internal and external causes: you and the organization were in a tough environment fraught with unfortunate and surprising conditions, and you and your colleagues didn’t anticipate and manage the crisis as well as you could have.

A well-established social science research finding is that when we think of our successes, we tend to come up with internal attributions. We focus on what we did right to affect the ultimate result. By contrast, when we think of our failures, we tend to come up with external attributions; we blame others, the context, or circumstances beyond our control.” Executives who have a fantastic year often take personal credit for their success, or if they are more generous, they credit their management team. But executives who suffer severe setbacks are quick to attribute these results to economic conditions, market trends, or government interventions.

First-class noticers, however, are more consistent. Even when failures occur, they focus on what they did and, more important, on what they could do differently in the future. As a result, they avoid repeating their mistakes. It is this focus on self-improvement that allows us to learn from experience and develop the tendencies needed to become first-class noticers.