Many executives in big companies attained their positions by excelling at getting things done. Unfortunately, a bias for doing rather than thinking can leave these executives ill-equipped for their new roles.
If you ask managers in a large organization to approach a strategic business problem, their focus often quickly narrows to proposing solutions. When asked why, many respond that they don’t have time to think.
How did we arrive in a state where managers do not recognize that thinking is part of their job? The answer reflects a relentless focus on execution in many large companies. A company becomes big by finding a successful business model — and then scaling it massively. This necessitates building a finely tuned system with highly standardized processes. To get promoted in such an environment requires an almost singular focus on execution. In other words, it requires action more than thinking. However, once executives are promoted to a senior level, these new business leaders must be able to think strategically. Ironically, the very skills in execution that led to their promotions often make these executives ill-equipped for their new roles, since their strategy thinking muscles have withered from disuse.
How to Find Strategic Insights
The goal of strategic thinking is to find strategic insights. Strategy is all about choices — about which markets to compete in and which markets to avoid. Strategic insights describe the boundaries separating attractive markets from unattractive markets. For example, Amazon.com Inc. had the strategic insight that it could marry its investment in computing infrastructure with its unparalleled e-commerce capabilities to develop an attractive new business offering cloud computing services, Amazon Web Services.
Although strategy is about the big picture, strategic thinking often starts in the weeds. To think about strategy, start with a specific customer example (a “use case”) and ask: How can we make money from this customer? Now change an assumption and see whether the answer changes. This is what good thinking involves: evaluating hypotheticals and pivoting from one hypothetical to another. At this stage, you are not looking for the best solution. What you are looking for are the boundaries that identify where your company can compete effectively (and where it cannot).
Does starting with narrow examples mean you risk not exhausting every possibility? That is more than a risk; it is a certainty. An exhaustive search is not your goal in strategic thinking. Instead, good strategic thinking sacrifices breadth for depth. Functional managers transitioning to become senior leaders must learn to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty.