I always joke that strategic people share similar traits to those we might consider lazy, cheap or conniving. Rather than just dive into work, strategic people will spend an extraordinary amount of time thinking of all the possible ways for them to get more out of something, while you exert the least possible effort or waste their own money. After thinking of every possible option, strategic people have this unique talent to make a firm decision on the best way forward. They are great at debate because it appears they already know the other options you might raise, and they already know why that option will not work as well. And, the thing about strategic people, is they get away with it.
Smart strategic thinkers see the right questions before they look for answers, while instinctual thinkers see answers before they even know the right question.
I see a big difference between strategic thinking and intuitive leaders. Strategic thinkers see ‘what-if’ type questions before they look for potential solutions. Have you ever been a meeting and heard someone say, “That’s a good question”? This is usually a sign someone has asked an interrupting question designed to slow everyone’s brain down, so they take the time to reflect and plan before they act, to force them to move in a focused and efficient way. Strategy is the thinking side of marketing, both logical and imaginative. Strategic people are able to map out a range of decision trees that intersect, to imagine how events will play out in the future. The risk is that if they think too long, they just spiral around, unable to decide. They miss the opportunity window.
On the other hand, instinctual leaders just jump in quickly to find answers before they even know the right question. Their brains move fast, they use emotional impulse and intuitive gut feel. These people want action now and get easily frustrated by delays. They believe it is better to do something than sit and wait around. They see strategic people as stuck running around in circles, as they try to figure out the right question. Instead, they choose emotion over logic. This “make it happen” attitude gets things done, but if they go too fast, their great actions may solve the wrong problem. Without proper thinking and focus, an action-first approach might just spread the brand’s limited resources randomly across too many projects. Intuitive leaders can be a creative mess and find themselves with a long to-do list, unable to prioritize or focus.
Brand leaders must learn how to change brain speeds.
They must move slowly when faced with difficult strategy and quickly with their best instincts on execution. A brand leader’s brain should operate like a racecar driver, slow in the difficult corners and go fast on the straightaway. You must slow down to think strategically. Did you ever think that the job might get in the way of thinking about how to do your job better? With wall-to-wall meetings, constant deadlines and sales pushes, you have to create your own thinking time.
Find your thinking time
You should block off a few hours each week, put your feet up on the desk, and force yourself to ask really difficult questions. Pick one problem topic for each meeting you book, and even invite a peer to set up a potential debate. The goal is not to brainstorm a solution, but to come up with the best possible question that will challenge the team. Even go for walks at lunch or a drive somewhere just to get away from it all. My best thinking never came at my desk in front of my computer. Too many marketers have their head down in the numbers they miss the obvious opportunities and threats that are right on the horizon. Strategic thinkers should assess, question and consider every element that can impact your business. Here is a simple 4-step process to run a strategic thinking meeting:
- Vision: Every brand and even every project should start with a longer-term vision that maps out the ideal state of where you want to go. Push yourself beyond the normal expectations. Always focus on ways to create a bond with your consumers to build a group of brand lovers.
- Situation: Brand leaders must know the immediate situation of the brand, so they can constantly analyze and assess the potential changes could happen with consumers, competitors, and channels that could impact the health and wealth of your brand. Without the deep and rich strategic thinking discipline, you risk moving too quickly on brand strategy, unable to see the insights that may be hidden beneath the surface. You solve the wrong problem. It is crucial to use the analysis to know how tight the bond you have created with consumers, to know where your brand sits on the brand love curve.
- Key Issues: Brand leaders must understand the issues in the way of the stated vision. This includes the drivers, inhibitors, risks and opportunities. Think of both immediate and longer-term issues. As stated, strategic thinkers see questions before they see solutions. In this process, frame the key issues as an interrupting and challenge question.
- Strategic direction: Strategies are answers to the questions that your situational analysis and key issues raised. They are never randomly selected. All this strategic thinking is wasted if you cannot make a decision. You should be an intellectual philosopher not a business leader. Do not tell yourself you are a good decision-maker if you come to a decision point and always choose both. The best brand leaders force themselves to focus. They use the word “or” more than they use the word “and”. Strategic thinkers never divide and conquer out of fear. They force themselves to make choices to focus and conquer.
Learn to change your brain speeds. Go slow with strategy and fast with execution.
To read more on How Marketers can be better strategic thinkers, click on this powerpoint presentation that forms one of our workshops. My hope is that it challenges you to think differently about your own brand situation:
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