Practicing Strategic Thinking

Once you’ve identified the behaviors that will have the most impact on the success of your business, it’s important to give your people an opportunity to practice them on a regular basis. In professional sports such as Major League Baseball, multi-million dollar professional athletes spend six to eight weeks in spring training before each season practicing the fundamentals: throwing, catching, hitting, fielding, bunting, and so on. In fact, professional athletes spend about 90 percent of their time practicing and only about 10 percent performing in their competition.40 In the business arena, those numbers are reversed, with the reality being that many executives are not even close to practicing or training 10 percent of their time. Research with more than 3,000 human resource executives showed that senior executives receive the least amount of training, and 41 percent receive no training and development at all.41 It’s ironic that as a leader assumes more responsibility and makes decisions that have a much greater impact on the overall business, they’re given less practice and training.

Practice is defined as “to perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient; to train by repeated exercises.”42 While we most often see the applicability of practice to sports, music, and hobbies, the reality is that practice is also integral to success in intellectual pursuits. United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.’s intellectual rigor and success in his field are due in large part to his willingness and discipline to practice. Writer Roger Parloff describes Chief Justice Robert’s practice habits:

When Roberts was preparing an oral argument, he would write down—usually longhand, using a pen and a legal pad—hundreds of questions that he might conceivably be asked. He’d ponder and refine the answers in his mind. Then he’d write the questions on flash cards, shuffle them, and test himself, so he’d be prepared to answer any question in any order.43

Chief Justice Roberts explained this approach with oral advocates in a speech: “The advocate . . . must meticulously prepare, analyze, and rehearse answers to hundreds of questions, questions that in all likelihood will actually never be asked by the court.”44

Renowned surgeon and professor Atul Gawande echoes the value of practice when he came to the following realization: “I’d paid to have a kid just out of college look at my tennis serve. So why did I find it inconceivable to pay someone to come into my operating room and coach me on my surgical technique?”45 Dr. Gawande’s insight demonstrates that high performers in intellectual fields generally don’t even consider practicing because of the very fact that they are high performers in an intellectual field. This is often the case with senior leaders in organizations. When conducting strategic-thinking workshops with director-level managers, one of the common themes that emerges is, “Our senior leaders need this training as well.” Understanding that practicing the behaviors critical to one’s role is important at any level of the organization opens up the potential for dramatic organizational improvement. The next step is determining how to practice those behaviors.

As children, we’re taught that practice is the key to improving our skill, whether it be playing the piano, hitting a baseball, or mastering multiplication tables. What we learn as adults is that all practice is not equally valuable. Spend 10 minutes at the driving range and it’s quickly evident that hitting ball after ball with no practice goals, feedback mechanism, or deliberate adjustments might be enjoyable, but it won’t make you better at golf. It would seem to reason that in a highly educated profession such as medicine, doctors would naturally get better over time. However, research shows that in many cases they don’t. In fact, mammographers generally become less accurate over time.46 Influencer author Kerry Patterson writes, “A 20-year-veteran brain surgeon is not likely to be any more skilled than a 5-year rookie by virtue of time on the job. Any difference between the two would have nothing to do with experience and everything to do with deliberate practice. . . . It’s the skill of practice that makes perfect.”47 Therefore, a closer look at the science behind practice and skill building can give us a clearer path to developing effective behaviors.

A behavior is an observable activity. An activity is made up of thoughts and movements. These thoughts and movements are the result of precisely timed electrical signals moving through a circuit of nerve fibers or chain of neurons. The nerve fibers are wrapped with an electrical insulator called myelin. Myelin insulates these nerve fibers like rubber insulation wraps a wire, increasing the speed, strength, and accuracy of the signal.48 The more we practice a certain activity, the greater the number of myelin layers that wrap around that circuit. More myelin insulation allows for quicker, more precise thoughts and movements, leading to a higher level of skill in that behavior. UCLA neurologist Dr. George Bartzokis summarizes by saying, “All skills, language, all music, all movements are made up of living circuits and all circuits grow according to certain rules. . . . What do good athletes do when they train? They send precise impulses along wires that give the signal to myelinate that wire.”49

In order to effectively develop a new behavior, it’s helpful to break the behavior down into its component pieces, practice those pieces individually, and then practice those pieces together. When practicing the individual pieces, it’s more effective to do so slowly, allowing for mistakes and then correcting those mistakes as you go. If you’ve ever attempted to improve your golf swing, you know that you wouldn’t try and change the entire swing at once. A golf instructor assisting you would first break your swing down to look at its components: stance, grip, shoulder and head position, club take-away, backswing, form at the top, downswing, arm position, hand position at contact, follow through, and finishing position. Once that analysis has been completed, you’d then pick one of those pieces and work on building what’s often referred to as muscle memory, or more precisely, greater myelin- ation around the appropriate nerve bundle. Each time you struggle with an individual piece of the behavior, then perform it optimally, you’re slowly building more myelin around the circuit and increasing the skill level.

Let’s use the strategic thinking behavior of resource allocation as an example. Instructing someone to “allocate their resources more effectively” would probably be met with a look of bewilderment. There are a number of thoughts and activities that go into the behavior of effective resource allocation, so it’s helpful to break the behavior down into its components. First, we should identify the individual circuits in the behavior of resource allocation. A sample might include the following:

  • • List of activities where time is invested
  • • Analysis of how much time is invested in each activity
  • • Creation of a graph to visually depict time investment per activity
  • • Use of a Time Trade-Off Matrix to determine which activities to eliminate investment of time, decrease investment of time, increase investment of time, and create new investment areas
  • • Recreation of graph with a new line depicting future allocation of the resource time
  • • List of action steps required to make the time trade-offs identified

A major reason managers don’t become more strategic over time is because they only perform the related tasks once a year during the annual planning process. In order to build up greater layers of myelin around our strategic-thinking circuits, we need to practice thinking strategically on a regular basis. A skill deteriorates if the primary circuits comprising the activities in a particular behavior are not used for 30 days.50 If you’re not dedicating time at least monthly to questions and frameworks to think strategically about the business, then you will not be strategic.

Leaders have the opportunity to not only practice key behaviors themselves, but also to continually hone and develop their people’s skills during their daily interactions. Opportunities for shaping how your managers practice include one-to-one conversations, customer visits, and staff meetings. Monthly strategy dialogues and workshops can be highly formative experiences that raise everyone’s performance. As these situations arise, there are three practice principles that can guide your instruction.

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