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In a series of posts on my strategy blog I looked at different times and scenarios where individuals and organisations can be ‘Too S**** For Strategy?!’; the ‘S’ referring to either stuck, small, stressed or supreme.

This got me thinking about when functional specialists, like scientists and engineers, move into more strategic roles.  For many people the expectation of being more strategic can sometimes be at odds with their personality and training to date.  This conflict can sometimes lead to individuals becoming overwhelmed or ‘stuck’. This is perfectly natural and there are many ways to overcome it.

Here are my thoughts on being ‘Too Stuck For Strategy?!’ which originally appeared on my strategy blog…

Too Stuck For Strategy?!

So what do I mean by stuck?  Here’s a definition which I think works well in the context of approaches to strategy…

stuck:  “fixed in a particular position, place or way of thinking”

Being rigid in our thinking and staying with old ways of working does not help build dynamic modern strategy or develop strategic skills.  What we need is the ability to change perspective, to be flexible and have a proactive attitude to keeping stuck-ness at bay.

Why?  As Albert Einstein is quoted as saying…“Problems cannot be solved by thinking within the same framework in which they were created.”

How do individuals and organisations get stuck in the first place?

In his book ‘Think Better’, Tim Hurson explains that, although we believe we are thinking all the time, our brains are generally engaged in either ‘distraction, reaction or following well-worn patterns’.  He brilliantly describes these as ‘monkey mind’, gator brain’ and ‘the elephant tether’.

The combination of these instinctive, reactive, distracting and learnt responses makes a heady cocktail.  One which can stop us seeing the truth, can make us defensive to change and new ideas and prevent us from trying new things.  They can combine to make us stuck.

Let’s examine this in a little more detail.

The ‘monkey mind’ makes it hard for us to focus and often stops us from thinking productively.  It is a powerful asset when we’re looking for creative ideas but at other times it is a distraction.

From a strategy perspective this means that when we need insightful critical thinking to inform our decisions we must ensure that our ‘monkey mind’ doesn’t lead us into random thinking and cause us to lose focus.

Despite having our highly developed cerebral cortex, or human brain, we are still at the mercy of our reactive ‘gator brain’.  Commonly known as the stem brain this is where our fight and flight reactions originate.  According to Hurson, because of the speed of reactions emanating from this area of the brain quite often the decisions we make come from our ‘gator brain’. These decisions are then rationalised by our human thinking.

When making strategic choices which are key to an organisation’s success we must ensure that there is rigour and analysis behind our decisions.  We then reduce the chances of one or all of the team’s ‘gator brains’ leading the group down a path that may be purely self-serving.

I didn’t realise until I started to read ‘Think Better’ that most of the ‘wiring’ in our brains is used for ‘recognising, storing and retrieving patterns’.  This is obviously an asset when it comes to survival as it helps us make judgements on what may happen in certain scenarios.  It is also useful when you are trying to learn, remember and do repetitive everyday tasks.

The drawbacks with the ‘elephant tether’ or patterning can arise when we continually follow existing ways of thinking and working without challenge.  When we make decisions that are based solely on what has happened before and our pattern-skewed view of future outcomes.

This element of stuck-ness must be addressed when developing and implementing strategy.  Being visionary and expansive in our approach to the future is key and this should be based on the truth and facts not entrenched patterns or beliefs.

Why does being stuck affect strategy development and strategic thinking?

Real modern strategy is a means of building longer term value within an organisation.  It is the mechanism that helps us move from where we are today to where we would like to be in the future.  It is first and foremost a dynamic, ever-evolving process.

To use strategy and strategic thinking as a means of embracing future uncertainty and a process for developing value we must be willing as individuals, teams and leaders to change perspective, be aware of emerging trends, threats and opportunities and be prepared to try something new.  All of this can be sabotaged if we let our ‘monkey mind’, ‘gator brain’ and ‘elephant tether’ take control.

How do we make stuck-ness a thing of the past?

Challenge:  Whether you lead a team, a corporate board or your own business, it is important that you continually challenge the status quo. Not to be destructive but to ensure that you and your team are striving to be the best.  acid testChange comes from challenge and wanting to make things better.  Getting un-stuck and staying that way comes from a desire to change.  Use The ACID Test to look honestly at the way you currently develop and implement strategy and the results you have achieved.  The truth is there before you.

Commitment:  Once you have recognised you need to change and you’ve agreed that you want to make it happen.  The next stage is to truly commit to it.  Initiatives here and initiatives there without substance or commitment do more harm than good and can lead to increasing stuck-ness.  Honestly and genuinely commit to changing your approach to strategy and inspire your team to do the same.  Commitment from all those involved is extremely important.  In the words of Peter Block… “The answer to how is yes”.

Continual:  This is not a one-off exercise.  Casting off the shadow of stuck-ness and investing in a modern approach to strategy and developing strategic thinking abilities does not happen over night.  Everyone’s adoption of the new ways of working will have a different pace.  Therefore, keep the momentum going, support your team and recognise where your own skills need enhancing.

Next time you’re stuck and feel the pull of the ‘elephant’s tether’, remember there are always ways to break free.

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