Editor's Note: The following feature was published in the September/October issue of PorkNetwork. Click here to view it and other features from the issue.
To be successful in any business, you need time to plan, both short-term and long-term. But too often, people get caught up in day-to-day issues that keep them from strategizing about where they want their business to be in the future.
“Every leader’s temptation is to deal with what’s directly in front, because it always seems more urgent and concrete,” says Paul J.H. Schoemaker, founder and chairman of Decision Strategies, Intl. Schoemaker is an author and teaches strategic decision-making at the Mack Center for Technological Innovation at Wharton.
It’s not easy being a strategic leader, he says. “This is a tough job. ‘We need strategic leaders!’ is a pretty constant refrain at every company, large and small. One reason the job is so tough is that no one really understands what it entails.”
After 20 years of advising organizations, Schoemaker has formed a clear idea of what’s required for people to become adaptive strategic thinkers – the kind who can thrive in an uncertain environment.
The focus for many business owners is on what’s directly ahead, says Schoemaker. When this happens, you lack “peripheral vision,” which can leave your company vulnerable to those who might detect and act on ambiguous signals. To anticipate well, you must:
- Look for game-changing information: What new technologies can be incorporated into your business? The pork industry is seeing healthy profits – how can you make investments in your operation that will help you thrive in the future?
- Search beyond the current boundaries of your business: What opportunities exist for your to expand into new markets? Can you produce a value-added product that allows you to capture value-added profits?
- Build wide external networks to help you better scan the horizon: Do you actively seek advice from financial, health or nutrition advisors? Are there other sources within your community who can provide insights you might not be able to identify on your own?
2. Think Critically
“Critical thinkers question everything,” says Schoemaker. You can’t be satisfied with the status quo if you want your operation to be viable 10 or 20 years from now. It’s important to:
- Reframe problems to identify root causes: Too often, business leaders fix the symptoms of a problem rather than the problem itself. Critical thinking encourages you to dig deeper into an issue to determine the factors that are actually causing the problem.
- Challenge current beliefs and mindsets, including your own: Keep an open mind and ask the opinions of others to expand your understanding of issues.
- Uncover hypocrisy, manipulation and bias in organizational decisions: Seeking input helps ensure you’re not operating your business in a vacuum.
Ambiguity makes everyone uncomfortable. It’s so much better to have clear goals and objectives for yourself as well as for others within your business. “Faced with ambiguity, the temptation is to reach for a fast (and potentially wrong-headed) solution,” says Schoemaker. “A good strategic leader holds steady, synthesizing information from many sources before developing a viewpoint. To perfect this skill, you need to:
- Seek patterns in multiple sources of data: Are you using your record-keeping system to its full potential? Are you asking for input from those who work with the data every day? No one person can do everything, but surrounding yourself with information providers can achieve similar goals.
- Encourage others with whom you work to do the same: And when they identify a potential issue, ensure they are comfortable bringing it to your attention. In other words, practice an open-door policy that encourages feedback.
- Question prevailing assumptions and test multiple hypotheses simultaneously: Just because something has “always been done this way,” doesn’t mean you should continue to do it that way. Look for new, creative alternatives that may be more efficient or practical.
“Many leaders fall prey to ‘analysis paralysis,’” says Schoemaker. “You have to develop processes and enforce them, so that you arrive at a strengthened position.” This involves:
- Carefully framing a decision to get to the crux of the matter: Take a strategic, broad view of an issue, and then delve into the variables to identify those that are most important.
- Balance speed, rigor, quality and agility: While you want to gather as much information as possible, keep timeliness in mind. Few decisions are perfect, so finding the balance between the best decision within a certain timeframe is important.
- Take a stand, even with incomplete information and amid diverse views: If you’ve gathered input from multiple sources and feel you have enough information to make a sound judgment, be assertive and build support for your decision.
Total consensus is rare. Schoemaker says a strategic leader must foster open dialogue, build trust and engage key stakeholders, especially when views diverge. To accomplish this, you must:
- Understand what drives other people’s agendas, including what remains hidden: Create confidence in every sense of the word, through reliability, fairness, caring, openness and competence.
- Bring tough issues to the surface, even when it’s uncomfortable: In Developing Management Skills, by D.A. Whetten and K.S. Cameron, the authors write: “The complexity inherent in most organizations tends to produce conflict between members whose tasks are interdependent but who occupy incompatible roles. Each unit has different responsibilities in the organization, and as a result each places different priorities on organizational goals.” It is your job as a strategic thinker to find consensus among these different lines of thought.
- Assess risk tolerance and follow through to build the necessary support: People have varying degrees of risk tolerance. While it’s good to stretch your limits, don’t go too far beyond what you’re comfortable living with.
“As your business grows, honest feedback is harder to come by,” says Schoemaker. “You have to do what you can to keep it coming. This is crucial, because success and failure – especially failure – are valuable sources of organizational learning.” Here’s what you need to do:
- Encourage and exemplify honest, rigorous debriefs to extract lessons: In the book, What Is Emotional Intelligence, K. Cherry writes, “The ability to express and control our own emotions is important, but so is our ability to understand, interpret, and respond to the emotions of others. Imagine a world where you couldn't understand when a friend was feeling sad or when a co-worker was angry.”
- Shift course quickly if you realize you’re off track: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and don’t be afraid to admit it when you do. True, authentic leaders are transparent.
- Celebrate both success and (well-intentioned) failures that provide insight: Terry Orlick writes in his book, In Pursuit of Excellence, “One of the premises is that you have to maintain focus, stay positive, stay connected with the right things, improve in small ways every day and not waste your time while you're there.”
Taking the Next Step
Obviously, these strategies won’t happen overnight, and as Schoemaker says, “No one is born a black best in all these different skills. But they can be taught, and whatever gaps exist in your skill set can be filled in.”