How to think strategically

What is strategic thinking, anyway?

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It sounds easy: my client wanted to think more strategically. isn’t that the hot buzzword? “Strategic thinking.” Oooh! Sexy. There’s only one problem: what, exactly, does it mean?

You’d think we would know. But I’ve seen executive teams discuss in all seriousness what the lever does on a piece of machinery. That’s about as non-strategic as it gets. In fact, a general rule is that if you read it in a manual, it’s quite likely not strategic.

What is strategic is when you’re doing something that changes the structure of the business in some basic way. Paint a machine lever red? Not strategic. Decide to outsource manufacturing to China? Strategic, because it changes who you hire, how you manage them, and what they’re capable of achieving. You punt your machines and take on eager young managers who speak Mandarin.

This is the first kind of strategic impact: changing organization structure. This includes outsourcing, selecting vendors (since what you can do now becomes expanded and limited by what they can do), mergers and acquisitions, changing the org chart, going public, and hiring and firing people who will in turn make strategic decisions.

Or consider an entrepreneurial client who insists on answering the phones himself. He’s done it since founding the business 20 years ago and prides himself on knowing everything that’s going on. But now that the company gets a hundred phone calls a day, he decides to install an automated attendant, freeing himself to do other things. This is an example of “business process reengineering,” which is a fancy way of saying “doing things differently.” Changing how a business does something is strategic because different hows give the business different capabilities. If your product is produced on a machine that turns out 100 widgets a day, then you simply can’t bid on a job that wants 500 units by tomorrow. If you can rearrange your factory processes and produce 5,000 units a day, whole new markets open up.

Speaking of markets, choosing the markets to compete in, what to sell, and how to price are all strategic decisions. After all, those decisions determine who you’ll hire, how you set up your org structure, and how you’ll deliver your product or service.

The American Express web site lists 20+ cards. I called a friend in Amex’s strategy group to help me understand the difference between the “Platinum Business” and the “Business Platinum” cards. He said, “I work in strategy. I don’t really know our product lines.” A strategy group that doesn’t know the products? I don’t know what they do, but it seems awfully dangerous to be making organization structure and process decisions without even knowing what your customers are buying.

Everything we’ve discussed so far is cross-functional; they can involve changes that affect many parts of a business. Though it’s possible to make strategic decisions in one area of a company without involving other areas, that’s a dangerous game. If our marketing department starts competing in a new market that cares about delivery time, but doesn’t tell our shipping folks, they can set the company up for failure.

Don’t make the same mistake. Learn when your decisions are strategic. That means decisions about org structure, process–the HOW–, cross-functional decisions, and the marketing decisions of what to sell and who to sell them to.

If you want to learn more about strategy, my very favorite book is Co-opetition by Adam Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff. I also liked Geoff Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm.” Both books are circa mid-90s. There are 83,416 other business books that will teach you some kind of strategic thinking. I’m not sure the specific strategic approach is very important (though consulting firms will make big bucks telling you otherwise); to me, the value comes from learning to think at a strategic level consistently and integrate strategic thinking into your daily running of the business.

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