When your responsibilities are operational and your performance is judged by short-term goals set by somebody else, the idea of ‘being more strategic’ can seem at odds with achieving what is expected
How can you focus on the big picture when you’re under pressure to deliver results now?
Increasingly however, professionals are being asked to contribute to their organisations’ strategic thinking. Sometimes this expectation sits within an overarching strategic planning framework; in other settings strategy formulation is more organic with managers and staff at all levels being provided with opportunities to contribute to an evolving process of strategic direction-setting.
Whilst the idea of participation in envisioning your organisation’s destiny or your department’s future can have much appeal, making the shift, albeit temporarily, away from issues of more immediate concern can be testing. One of the greatest challenges for managers and staff whose primary focus is the practical aspects of day to day operations is that, for operational purposes they need to think in concrete terms; figuring out what it takes to get the job done on time, on budget and meeting expectations. In contrast, strategy development requires people to think in far more abstract terms.
Despite the challenges, involving people across the organisation in strategy development processes can make a lot of sense. Done well, it means that the higher level, conceptual thinking needed for strategy development is informed by practical, grass roots knowledge and experience. It also means that ongoing operations can be more firmly tied to strategies across the organisation through decision-making which is aligned with strategic goals.
For professionals who are interested in developing a more strategic orientation, a simple technique, when embedded in everyday practice, will enhance your strategic thinking capability. This technique also holds the potential for helping solve entrenched operational problems by seeing them through a strategic as well as an operational lens. It has been shown that moving back and forth between these modes enables better decision-making process.
A helicopter mind: Principle and practice
Successful involvement of staff and line management in strategy formulation depends on professionals who can think in both abstract (higher level) and specific (lower level) terms and move up and down between the two levels rather like a helicopter shifts back and forth between lower and higher levels of altitude. For some, this approach is ‘business as usual’; for others, with a more hands-on focus, it can take a little practice.
A ‘helicopter’ mind is able to grasp a concept and apply it to practice (downward movement of the helicopter) and able to translate practical experience into abstract concepts (taking the helicopter to a higher altitude) which can then be applied to other situations. For the professional with an operational focus, this means taking time every so often to step back from what is happening on the ground to do the following:
- Select a specific work-related activity or problem;
- Ask ‘why’ questions to evaluate the activity in terms of its purpose, value and desired outcomes; and
- Ask ‘how’ questions to examine methods, processes, resource and skills requirements.
You will find that the answers to the Why? questions move you upwards from the specific towards the abstract and responses to the How? questions move you downwards to increasing specificity. It is often necessary to ask ‘Why?’ or ‘How?’ multiple times for any selected topic in order to arrive at a high enough level of abstraction or a sufficient level of detail to reach new understanding.
For example, asking why service turnaround times had been gradually increasing over the past six months helped a manager discover the effect of staff turnover in a particular area. Asking Why? again, revealed skills deficiencies in supervisors and led ultimately to understanding an effect of budget cuts in the area of professional development. This new understanding led to a revised strategy for learning and development across the organisation.
Asking Why? questions prompts you to evaluate the methods used to achieve an outcome. Asking Why? questions can be particularly useful for technical people who may habitually focus on How? questions, optimising a task at the expense of considering objectives and outcomes. Asking Why? questions can also enhance relationships across the organisation when finding the answers involves consulting with managers responsible for areas of interest which lie outside your direct control.
Questioning how an activity is undertaken leads to consideration of the methods and processes used to achieve outcomes and, if necessary, to challenging them. Following the service delivery issue above ‘downward’ led to questions about how staff turnover was measured and to the discovery that it was limited to quantitative measures. Qualitative data such as the reasons for resignation had not been gathered. Taken to a higher altitude this discovery assisted development of new strategies to optimise staff satisfaction with their work and conditions.
‘Hovering’ over an issue of concern or an activity of interest and engaging in helicopter thinking can build new knowledge for strategic and operational purposes and support integration of learning across the organisation.
It is said that being more strategic involves seven forms of ‘seeing’*:
- Seeing ahead – into the future.
- Seeing behind – into the past.
- Seeing above – for a view of the big picture.
- Seeing below – to what lies beneath.
- Seeing beside – picking out the ‘gems’.
- Seeing beyond – creating the future.
- Seeing it through – getting things done.
Most professionals are already adept at several of these ways of seeing. Whilst incorporating a ‘helicopter mindset’ into your portfolio of techniques won’t turn you into strategy expert, it will enable you to extend into other forms of seeing and to become more strategic in your orientation.
For more about approaches to strategy making see ‘Strategic Thinking and Planning’ a guide for managers at http://www.apesma.asn.au/groups/managers/pdfs/Strategic_Planning_Guide.pdf.
About the Author
Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant coach and facilitator specialising in organisational and leadership development governance and performance improvement and team planning and development through FourLeaf Consulting (www.fourleaf.com.au).
* These seven forms of 'seeing' are drawn from the work of Henry Minzberg in 'Strategy Safari: a guided tour through the wilds of strategic management'
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