By Dave Crisp
It used to be taught that as you rise to higher levels in organizations you do less day-to-day work and dedicate more time to strategic thinking. Canada’s management guru, McGill/INSEAD professor Henry Mintzberg, pretty much laid that to rest quite a few years ago with his seminal study of what CEOs do all day long.
Senior executives are found, in study after study, to be busy all day with many relatively basic tasks, interrupted on average every four to 10 minutes with questions when they aren’t in relatively routine meetings, chatting with customers, staff or other stakeholders. Great gobs of time dedicated to "thinking" just don’t exist. So how does strategic thinking happen if we’re all occupied with problem-solving and ensuring basic work gets done?
The answer is we have to learn to think in deeper terms as we work, not instead of work.
There’s a potential problem with this. We know multi-tasking is really shifting from one task to another and back quickly. Trying to do several things at once is a pretty good formula for disrupting focus and slowing work down. It takes five minutes or so to get back on track after an interruption, so there are good reasons for trying to set aside time to work on important projects without people dropping in or allowing yourself to break off for phone calls or email instead of always allowing that steady stream of interruptions every five minutes as many do. Can we productively do strategic thinking while doing other things at the same time?
Developing habits helps smooth things out. As with every piece of advice, the key is balance, not total adherence to just one way of approaching things. Sometimes you’re just plain busy. You need to simply get stuff done and handle whatever the day throws at you. But there’s often more room for control of time, yet we aren’t prepared for that. It’s nice to get a moment to catch your breath between problems, but what then?
First you need a transitional habit — how to get back on track after interruptions, for instance. One way kills two birds with one stone. Keep in mind some question you’ve been puzzling about. Broader creativity works best when interrupted (hence the common advice "to sleep on it" for problem-solving).
Solving problems can be creative if you test out new ways of getting different results, but all too often a day is composed of solving the same sort of problem in the same sort of way over and over. That in itself should suggest, in the spaces between crises, that a better way is needed — someone else should be assigned this stuff, staff should be trained differently or directed differently or encouraged to solve these on their own... and now we’re thinking strategically, which is simply to say we’re trying to invent some new way of getting better results faster, more smoothly and so on by moving into previously unknown, untested territory.
Moving your thinking in this direction is strategic in two ways. First you’re strategically trying to solve your own problem of how to organize your time most productively (and we all have needs for improvement). Second you’re thinking in terms of the larger organization — how many others face this, are bogged down, held back or left out of the loop? How can the organization get the best from them, too?
How many executives put off thinking about how to improve things like this "until they find time?" Many seem to wait until they explode from overload or run into a session at a conference with a stock solution they hadn’t heard of. Those spur of the moment efforts rarely are best. Instead we can recognize that every situation is a chance to at least think a bit more about how to solve the present problem better next time, how it might be possible to test a new way to handle it in the very next instance instead of simply jumping to do whatever it is, we will eventually reach a point of implementing a new approach.
If we can get everyone practicing to develop this habit, innovation and progress become the culture and are reinforced in all areas and at all levels. In short order productivity increases dramatically. Engage!
Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.