As a senior executive, you need to balance the long-term strategic and short-term operational needs of your company. This is not easy, writes Sabina Nawaz for Harvard Business Review, when meetings so readily become dominated by day-to-day concerns.
Nawaz illustrates the problem through the experience of ‘Mauricio’, who heads up a Fortune 500 manufacturer’s operation in Europe. The business finds itself facing a raft of difficulties which could and should have been dealt with before they reached crisis point.
Unfortunately, Mauricio and his colleagues missed that opportunity by failing to start talking about them as strategic-level issues 12 months earlier. Now they require urgent action at an operational level.
Mauricio had been quite aware of the need to engage his leadership team in strategic discussions, and they had all agreed to raise agenda items accordingly, but somehow it hadn’t happened. Meetings always reverted to discussing operational matters and the latest crises.
Mixing strategic and operational topics in meetings is beset with pitfalls such as:
1) Hesitancy in discussing topics outside your specialist area. Mauricio, for instance, began in the company as an engineer and advanced into management. Engineering and operational issues are still his comfort zone, while he has much less confidence in speaking up on financial and broader strategic topics.
2) The urge to solve and check off immediate problems. You know you should be delegating solvable problems to your team, but it’s so tempting to fix them yourself there and then. This gives an instant sense of accomplishment and a recordable measure of progress.
3) Applying a short-term problem-solving approach to a strategic discussion item. What should have involved brainstorming, viewing from many different angles, and expanding your ideas widely is reduced to seizing on the first suggestion that seems to work. You risk omitting some important considerations.
HOW TO KEEP YOUR LONG-TERM FOCUS
Follow these tips to maintain your focus on strategy:
1) Design a learning environment. Ahead of your strategic meetings, involve your team in educational sessions on the relevant topics. Invite speakers from other teams, and from outside your organisation, to share their expert perspectives. Within the context of sharing knowledge, your colleagues will feel much more comfortable about asking questions. This way, they will enter each strategic meeting better prepared, with a more equal understanding, and with a greater willingness to express views.
2) Detach operational meetings from strategic ones. When you mix operations and strategy, short-term considerations will naturally gain most attention. It’s hard to ignore immediate problems and talk about the future instead, so you must separate these two agendas if you are to do justice to both. By setting time aside for strategic-level conversations, you will prevent many issues from ever becoming urgent operational concerns.
3) Explore strategic issues from multiple angles. Don’t be hasty in deciding on solutions. Look at the problem from many points of view first, and explore it thoroughly. It can be surprising how differently the members of your team interpret a given challenge. “These strategic topics benefit from divergence before convergence,” says Nawaz.
A high-tech multinational was deciding on the location of its next centre for software development. While the CEO had expected this to be a half-hour agenda item, with most executives already broadly in agreement, initial exploration from a number of angles showed there were many important aspects that should be discussed. To gain full understanding of the data, consider each viewpoint and accurately predict each option’s effect, three further meetings were held.
It should be recognised that strategic discussion requires a different approach to day-to-day problem solving. For instance, you could try to:
- Use a variety of brainstorming methods – with no ideas immediately rejected;
- Channel the thoughts of your greatest critics and closest competitors; and
- Create a dialogue process with slower, more deliberate methods that gain more even participation.
RESISTING SHORT-TERM TEMPTATION
“Declare your intention and go,” concludes Nawaz. Make it very clear at the start of each strategic meeting that you intend to ignore short-term considerations and stick to the bigger picture. If the conversation strays into operational matters, stop and bring it back to a strategic focus.
By understanding how tempting the short-term agenda can be, and where the traps lie, you can use your role as senior leader to guide your leadership team along the strategic track.