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How to think strategically | Amazing If

Helen Tupper: And this is the Squiggly Careers podcast, a weekly podcast where we talk about the ins, outs, ups and downs of work and try to give you some, well, probably a bit of Squiggly support, to be honest, but also some practical insights, ideas and things that you can take away and try out after you’ve listened to the podcast. We are about 370 episodes into the podcast. So, if you are new, welcome, there’s quite a lot to catch up on. And also you might not know about all the other resources that we have, so we’ve got PodSheets, which are one-page summaries of what Sarah and I are going to talk about today, so that after you’ve listened, you can put all that stuff into action, we really care about action; and then we also share some shorter summaries on social, so if you want something to swipe as a bit of a reminder, or share with other people if it’s a topic that you find particularly useful, that might be worthwhile as well.

Most Thursdays we also do PodPlus, which is a 30-minute free session that you can join, it happens on Zoom. We have a lovely community of listeners that all come to share what they know and ask questions and it’s just a really nice place to connect. If you like learning about careers, there is a lovely community there on PodPlus for you.

Sarah Ellis: So, today’s topic is how to improve your strategic thinking, and we wanted to start off with some myths to bust about this idea of strategic thinking, because I think there are sometimes some mindset and skillset barriers that can get in the way of developing this skill. So, the first one is that it’s not only for senior people. I think this is a skill that we connect with the ladder in lots of ways, and I think when we connect it to the ladder, it sort of limits our learning because we think, “Oh well, it’s only the people far up the ladder who need to worry about this”. Or perhaps you look at it a slightly different way that limits your learning and you think, “Oh, this is something for smart people”, because this idea of strategy, just somehow everyone goes, “Oh, that’s for smart people”, and then you just sort of feel like, “Oh, well then that’s not me”.

So, you maybe stop yourself before you even get started. The third thing is that it isn’t separate from your day-to-day. I think sometimes when you do some research on this, one of the things, the themes, that you see again and again is that people sometimes confuse maybe some of the strategic planning processes that happen, or often because there might be strategy away days, we’re thinking, “Oh, it’s not something that I could do day-to-day”, it’s almost something that happens either in an ivory tower or in isolation. But we’re talking here about how to think strategically every day.

I think this is a skill you can use all the time. Of course, there might be moments where we’re sort of really diving deep into strategy, but I think if you disconnect it from your day job, then you’re not going to have enough opportunity to practise the skill. Then the fourth one, which is slightly counterintuitive, so we’ve even called this, “How to improve your strategic thinking”, you’ve got to be a bit careful, I think, with strategy that you don’t miss that strategy isn’t only about thinking, it’s also about executing on that strategy. And there’s this great phrase about strategy where it often says, “Strategy isn’t what you say, it’s what you do”.

And in all my experience in strategy, and I have done those jobs where I have strategy in my job title, so I have been some of these people, I think the best strategic thinkers are not the ones who just mill around sounding smart or doing some thinking, they’re the ones that come up with strategic thinking that then very clearly influences and has impact in all of our day-to-day; it sort of shows up in what you do. I think you’ve got to bring those two together, so not thinking, “Oh, well Sarah’s a thinker and Helen’s a doer, so that means that Sarah is the strategy one and Helen’s the person who does the execution”. I think that’s too binary and not useful in terms of how we think about this skill.

Helen Tupper: I was just thinking about general kind of Helen’s Squiggly Career experiences of strategy. Most of my career to this point has been spent in large organisations where I think there were definitely times where there’d be this big period of organisational change or a big new thing launching, and to your point, in came the strategy experts, which were often consultants from outside, often wearing suits and they would often come in like a group and then would take over a room and that’s where the strategy happened.

And I don’t think that was very helpful because it felt like you were outsourcing that strategic thinking, to your point, to smart people. So, that wasn’t a great visual to see that happening all the time. Or, it was your point about super-smart people. There’d be people that got a strategy in the job title and you’re like, “Wow, they’re brains” and they were, they were super-brainy people. But then, it sort of became this quite intimidating skill, and that was the big company context. Then I think now, we run a small, fast-growing company, and I think I have become more and more aware of the importance of everybody thinking strategically, because maybe it’s with remote working too.

So, our team is super-flexible, everyone works in the times and ways that work for them, and so we’re not all connecting at the same points of time together. So, it’s not like Sarah and I could just set a strategy and that’s it. We need everybody to think for their areas about what strategy looks like and to own it and to challenge us, or we’re not able to sort of adapt quickly and work effectively. And I think I’ve just become more and more conscious of this skill being something that we all need and isn’t the domain of smart people and shouldn’t be something that’s outsourced to another company to do for you. Sarah and I get this a lot, you know, people will come to us and be like, “Oh, we think we should do a day of strategic thinking”, and we’re like, “No, it’s not really an away-day kind of thing, it’s an everyday kind of thing that we need”.

So, yeah, it’s just interesting how pervasive I think the skill is and how important it is now for everybody in their roles. So, the reality is though that lots of things I think get in the way of that. So, even like, “Oh yeah, it’s really important, it’s part of every day”, I think loads of things get in the way, like the day job, like the doing part of things, the ability to stop and think something through so you can potentially do something differently. I don’t think that’s always easy and we want to try and help you with that by giving you some tools that you can use on your own every day, or in a team, in a meeting, so it just becomes part of the way you work, but it often can be a challenge.

Again, you might not know how. I think because Sarah and I have worked in those big companies, we’ve seen some models and frameworks, we’ve seen some of the questions that people use. But don’t worry if you haven’t yet, because they’re very learnable and we’ll share them with you. Again, you might feel like it’s someone else’s job, but hopefully we’re kind of getting across this thing that everyone’s job is better if they are able to think strategically. And it’s a really important skill for a Squiggly Career, both for you and your development, but also for the work that you’re doing too. Your career will be better and the work that you do will be better if you can bring the strategic thinking into your days a bit more.

Sarah Ellis: Yeah, and I think when you have that strategic thinking skill, I think it will help you to stay relevant in your Squiggly Career. So, you don’t want to miss the boat, you don’t want to have been so head down and probably delivering and maybe doing a brilliant job, that you don’t then spot opportunities, possibilities or trends. And that might be to be able to do your day job really well, but also that might be for you personally.

I think when you’re good at that sort of strategic perspective, you start to connect dots, you zoom out a bit more, you see the big picture. When I’ve read lots of articles preparing for today, lots of people just describe, they use this “big-picture thinking” a lot. It’s a bit of a default for strategic thinking. And if you have that ability to see the big picture, you can think about also, “What does that mean to me?” as well as, “What does that mean for my team, or what does that mean for my organisation?” If something’s going in a direction that you think, “Oh, that’s going to be more motivating to me [or] less meaningful for me”, you can ask yourself some really helpful so-what questions quite early on, and I think get a jumpstart on putting yourself in a really good position, (a) to make the most of opportunities, but also (b) sometimes to think through those knotty moments as well.

So, one of the things that I re-read, because I already had it on my bookshelf for today, was the HBR, so Harvard Business Review, Guide to Strategic Thinking. And those HBR guides are useful in that they bring together articles on a particular topic. And I’ve just picked out one thing from that book today that I wanted to talk about, and you can also read about this on a free article, so you don’t need to buy the book to be able to read about this. And there are quite a few links for today’s episode, so worth going to the show notes to make sure you get those if you need them.

So, here we’re talking about a matrix from somebody called John Coleman, and it’s the Agility Times Consistency Matrix. So, his argument is that to be strategic, you’ve got to balance agility and consistency, where agility is being adaptable, you’re willing to change, you maybe even anticipate and enjoy change, you’re curious, you’re ready to learn from others; so, that’s the kind of the good stuff about agility. And then the consistency, which I think it’s really good to have that there as well alongside that, because I think sometimes you might just think it’s those first things, is that actually strategic leaders, they show up, they deliver consistently, they talk about the strategy in the same way again and again, they work hard, they’re there when you sort of need them to be. I think one of the things that he mentions is that, what’s particularly interesting about this matrix is that it does have a natural tension that typically people tend to see themselves as slightly more one of these versus the other, and it’s worth just recognising some of the things that hinder you as well as help you.

So, if you’ve got really high agility, you can also become unfocused. You might be visionary, but you can lack the sort of single-minded capability to really execute on that vision. And if too consistent, then you risk rigidity, so maybe being stubborn, or you’re struggling to adapt. So, the two-by-two matrix, when you’re low consistent and low agility — these boxes always sound so harsh, don’t they?

Helen Tupper: They do sound really harsh!

Sarah Ellis: I was like, “Oh, this feels apparently you’re unreliable and uninspired”. I’m like, “Oh, crikey!” Okay, if you are high consistency, but low agility, that’s where you can be rigid; if you’re low consistency but high agility, you’re unfocused; and when you’ve got the high consistency and high agility, he argues that’s where you’re strategic.

What I thought was most helpful about this is not beating ourselves up sometimes when we lack agility or consistency, but actually knowing, first of all, which one are you more? So, are you more agile or are you more consistent? Because I think once you then know that, you can then think about, “Okay, so what do I need to improve my consistency, or what do I need to improve my agility?” So, Helen, when you’ve seen that matrix and you’ve looked at that, where do you put yourself in that two-by-two?

Helen Tupper: I think I’m much more agile. I think I respond to stuff really quickly and I can kind of get over things quite fast and move on to the next thing. But I definitely see that that sometimes means I’m unfocused. Like even this morning, I got to my desk super-early this morning, and I went from prepping for the podcast to doing some stuff for someone in our team to writing some things that I needed to get done. But I did feel a littlebit unfocused, because I wasn’t doing that in a particularly consistent way. I hadn’t planned to do all of that stuff; I was, in a sort of very agile way, responding to the different things that were happening. So, it does mean it means I can work on quite a lot of stuff.

I think there’s benefits of high agility, but I also see the downside of that sometimes being unfocused because I don’t have that high consistency. What about you?

Sarah Ellis: I found this one quite difficult, because I sort of felt like I was medium on both of them. Particularly, I could see the downsides in myself on both of them! So, maybe I’m just unreliable and uninspired.

Helen Tupper: No, that’s not true.

Sarah Ellis: I could see I definitely really enjoy change and I like newness and I think I’m curious and those sorts of things. I was like, “Okay, great”. But I also get a bit distracted by, when I was reading about this it said, “These people often get a bit distracted by shiny new things, they love starting stuff”, and I was like, “Yeah, okay, that’s definitely me”. But I can also see the consistency in myself, like that you show up. I do think I have a tendency to want to consistently connect the dots with, “Why are we doing this?” and say those things time and time again, and I’m also sometimes quite stubborn. So, I was like, “Okay, maybe I’m just always boringly squarely, in the middle of medium”. No matrix ever has a medium on it, does it? But I was like, “I think I am sort of a medium on these”.

Helen Tupper: I think, you know how you always say it’s like — whenever Sarah and I talk about a matrix, Sarah will always say on a podcast, I’m surprised you haven’t said it so far, but Sarah will always say — because Sarah gets really uncomfortable about putting people in boxes, which I think is a nice thing that you do that; so I like how you’re like, “I will not fit in one of these boxes, I will fit in the middle”. But I think it is a fair point. And I think that frameworks are useful because they create a conversation, which is what we will come on to in a moment. But I think probably the more useful thing to your point is, which are you more of at the moment; high agility or high consistency? Which one of those is pulling you in, and what are the implications of it? And the model just I think helps you to kind of visualise where you might be moving around to, rather than forcing people to fit into a particular bit. So, if you are in the middle right now, I think that’s a perfectly fine place to be.

Sarah Ellis: And then some of the outcomes of the so-what, when you’ve sort of figured this out for yourself is (1) spotting what’s needed most in different situations. So, there are times where you might want to increase your agility, and there are times where you might want to increase your consistency, so this is not a steady state thing, and I found that quite useful, it’s almost kind of being situational; (2) complementing what you’re good at with other people. So actually, the reason I did like reading this article was, what he isn’t saying is, “Okay, you’ve got to be amazing at everything all of the time”. He also talked about, “If you’ve got really high agility, spot someone who’s got really high consistency” because actually almost together, you’ll be a super-strategic thinker, and I quite like that. I like that idea of who are you partnering with.

And you might even, especially if you have this conversation with someone else, you can start to point to what is needed. So, you know you might say to me, “Oh actually, Sarah, I think what I really need is you to kind of hold me to account to be really consistent on this so I don’t get distracted”. And so, you’ve made that point of like, “I maybe find that hard to do for myself, but I know that you can help me”.

Helen Tupper: I mean, it does sound like as writing books!

Sarah Ellis: Yeah, definitely! I think that’s why I got to medium, because I probably also, which, you know, you’ve got to be a bit careful about comparison, I think I thought, “I am quite high on agility”, but I thought, “but I am nowhere near as high as hell it is”. And I think I do often sometimes bring the consistency because you’re so high.

Helen Tupper: Yeah, I agree!

Sarah Ellis: And then the last one, which I also just found interesting and useful, particularly for our company at the moment, is actually to be successfully strategic, you also need to have the right processes in place. So often, you don’t think of strategic thinking and processes together necessarily. But one of the things that he talks about is that actually, high consistency comes often from having really good processes. So, it’s not always like saying the same thing over and over again, it’s have you got very clear metrics that you keep coming back to; are you measuring the things that matter; are people using consistent processes, or has everybody got their own process, because that will stop you being strategic? I was reflecting on that for our company and I can see pockets of places where we do have good processes.



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