The heart of strategic thinking, whether for an organization or for a person, requires concentrating on the important rather than the urgent, the long-term rather than the short-term, and on all the pertinent factors involved. Moreover, strategic thinking is not a once and done assignment; strategic leaders must be continually revising their strategic thought to accommodate change.
Of course, strategic thinking alone is not enough; it must generate a strategic plan to be useful. More than merely visions, strategic plans include short, medium, and long-term objectives, action programs, and budgets. The best plans are specific enough to be helpful, but are also flexible enough for an ever-changing world. In fact, strategic leaders with practical wisdom must make sure there is a back-up plan and resources in reserve for the unexpected.
In planning, strategic leaders must cooperate with leaders at all three levels. While strategic leaders are responsible for crafting “one liners” of plans to be sketched out, they should be able to rely on their operational leaders to fill in the details of the areas they oversee.
There are four basic hallmarks of effective strategic plans:
1. Strategic plans must select and maintain the aim. Resources spent off the plan are wasted.
2. Strategic plans must be simple, or at least broken down into simple, understandable steps.
3. Strategic plans must be the result of cooperation and input from across the organization.
4. Strategic plans must be in line with the overall situation of the field and world in which the organization lives.
5. Making It Happen
After putting in the work of strategic thinking and crafting a strategic plan, strategic leaders must execute, or make it happen. This means they must oversee the actual work being done, like an architect visiting the site of a building as it goes up, making alterations when appropriate. To be an effective overseer, strategic leaders must have a clear sense of the strategic plan and where the organization, both as a whole and its parts, should be in the implementation of the strategic plan. Of course, operational leaders should likewise be overseeing their areas. The better their understanding of the strategic plan, the more efficiently the plan will be executed.
The goal of both strategic and operational leaders is to be aware but not interfere unless absolutely necessary. If interference is necessary, leaders should try to do so in the quietest, subtlest way possible. It is a tricky balance and requires wisdom and thoughtfulness. Nonetheless, if the strategic and operational leaders have communicated the plans well, the organization as a whole and its parts should be mostly self-controlling and self-correcting.
Involvement of strategic leaders is most important when things are going wrong. Often, merely the appearance of calm and collected leaders in a crisis calms those under them, enabling the whole team to strategize from a place of strength and not disintegration. Strategic leaders also have the unique advantage of knowing the whole picture and can offer gentle guidance from a wide-lens perspective. However, strategic leaders cannot solve everything themselves, and teamwork among all three levels of leadership and those under the leaders is critical to keep an organization on track.
As strategic leaders oversee their strategic plans in action, they should be watching for eight crucial factors:
1. The team is consistently working toward clear, attainable, and demanding objectives. Of course, these objectives would have been formulated as part of the strategic thinking and planning process, but objectives may need revision as the plan goes forth.
2. The team shares a sense of purpose. As with clear objectives, good strategic leaders communicate the purpose from the start, but they also watch to make sure their team continues to have a clear purpose.
3. The team uses resources, including money, materials, time, and people, efficiently. This must be monitored carefully, as many people have the tendency to be inefficient.
4. The team conducts progress reviews as it executes the plan. These may be informal, but it is important for a team to be self-monitoring. If the team does not monitor itself, the strategic leader should work with the operational and team leaders to establish sensible progress reviews, which will hopefully become unnecessary as time goes on.
5. The team builds on experience. Failure need not be the end of the plan, but a rich field for growth.
6. The team possesses mutual trust and support. Without these elements, the team, and therefore the task and the individuals, will falter.
7. The team communicates within itself and with its leaders.
8. The team is resilient, and remains calm and clear-headed through crises.
9. Relating the Parts to the Whole
If the essence of an organization is a form of the whole comprised of interdependent parts, relating the parts to the whole is a crucial part of the strategic leader’s role. When the parts work together as a whole, each part fulfilling its own smaller goals to contribute to the overall goal, it is like a piece of music perfectly played by an orchestra.
Sometimes organizations need to be restructured to help all the parts work together more smoothly. One of the best ways for strategic leaders to review their organization’s structure is to test it against the three-tiered model of task, team, and individual. They should clarify the task and how the task is communicated, articulate the parts and review how the parts relate to the task and to each other, assess whether individual needs are being met, and evaluate how tensions among the three areas are resolved. As leaders evaluate and possibly restructure their companies, they need to remember that organizations, like people, do not thrive on too much change at once. They need to be selective and careful about the changes they implement.
Besides reviewing an organization’s structure, strategic leaders must be wise about the number of people in a working group and how many people one supervisor should oversee. The Roman army organized its soldiers into groups of 10, which seems to be a magical number for most teams and tasks. Supervisors should also be encouraged to delegate. Delegation means granting authority and responsibility to the right people with the right training, and supporting them as they carry out their work. Too often, supervisors micromanage capable workers or abdicate their own oversight role completely.
Before people can lead others, they must lead themselves. Effective leaders must learn to master their time, their schedules, and their administrative work, rather than be mastered by them.
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