Not Strategic

Fairly or unfairly, some of us get saddled with this label. What does it really mean to be strategic, anyhow? And what you can you do to avoid the “not strategic” label? Let’s take a moment to pause and reflect.

  • We’re guessing you’ve heard someone referred to as “not strategic” more than once.
  • It might have even been the someone you see when you look in the mirror.
  • Worst case scenario, this label was being used by people with power to exclude or minimize.
  • Best case, it was well-intentioned feedback based on real concerns about someone’s ability to tackle a key element of the task at hand.
  • So what does it actually mean to be strategic?
  • Before we get to the adjective, let’s start with the noun. The word “strategy” is notoriously vague. Easy to say but hard to pin down.
  • We like this definition from Roger Martin: “Strategy is the act of making an integrated set of choices, which positions the organization to win.”
  • It stands to reason, then, that someone who is strategic is well-equipped to make this kind of choice.
  • So what are the specific traits or capabilities that make one person more well-equipped than another? Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of opinions here.
  • For Jo Miller, it comes down to your time horizon: “Focusing on the longer-term encourages you to become more forward thinking, visionary, and strategic.”
  • For Daniel Pink it’s about being able to connect the dots and see patterns.
  • For Yuval Atsmon, it’s about questioning assumptions and exploring the indirect and non-obvious solutions.
  • This philosophy reminds us of this famous quote from military theorist B.H. Liddell Hart: “In strategy, the longest way around is often the shortest way home.”
  • For Nina Bowman, it’s about keeping an eye on big picture trends and asking tough questions.
  • And for Mark Pollard it’s all about language—using words to make meaning of the mess. Having read our fair share of jargon-y strategy decks that are more mess than meaning, we think he might be onto something.
  • There’s truth in all of this, but our favourite answers to this tricky question come (once again) from Roger Martin. In his view, the ideal recipe mixes a mindset with some key traits.
  • On the mindset side, it starts with the belief that strategy must start with what customers need—not what shareholders want. We could not agree more.
  • And on the key traits side, it’s about learning to work comfortably with “soft” qualitative nuances.
  • In others words, strategy is a very human practice—a function of the heart as much as the head.
  • Martin offers one more key insight worth sharing. The “not strategic” label is often applied to people who are deeply anchored in operational reality. This assumes that “strategic people” are smarter than mere “operators” who should stick to execution.
  • Martin disagrees strongly. He believes it’s a mistake to leave strategy entirely up to people who are not in tune with operational reality: “Anyone divorced from operations will never know as much—no matter how smart they are.”
  • Ultimately, the binary “strategic / not strategic” framing is not very helpful.
  • Instead of locking people out because they don’t tick a long list of boxes, let’s make strategy development an inclusive, collaborative process.
  • One that makes room for many perspectives—and combines big picture vision with a careful eye on operational reality.
Issue #156
Oct 9, 2022

Further Reading