How To Restore The Lost Habit Of Strategic Thinking

November 23, 2020

By Adam Chapman, EyeForPharma on Mar 21, 2019
Walking into the abyss while using smartphone.

You have probably heard that it takes 30 days to form a new habit. But according to research by a team at University College London, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit, and on average about 66 days.

Whether you believe it takes 30 days, 66 days or 254 days, it’s been longer than that since the pandemic descended on us back in March. That means that you and your people have formed new habits since then - breaking some old ones like commuting to work and working in an office, and adding some new ones like coping with each new day by focusing efforts on a list of urgent tasks.

The latter habit - focusing on the urgent - is leading people to resist longer-term thinking. Leaders are telling us that they’re encountering a lot of resistance  from their people right now, and it’s partially because many people have gotten out of the habit of thinking strategically.

A New and Dangerous Habit - Exclusively Short-Term Thinking

The resistance sounds like this:

  • “A great percentage of our leaders continue to manage the acuity of the current situation and won’t lift their heads up to think about the future; not while they’re gasping for air” (Health Care Agency CEO);
  • “We were pleasantly surprised by how effective our video meetings were at the start of the pandemic. Everyone was on time and prepared. But as time’s gone by, people are getting used to managing tactical decisions and actions and are irritated by having to think about longer-term priorities.” (Insurance CEO);
  • “We’re all suffering from Zoom fatigue.” (Retail Chief Digital Officer)

Those are genuine complaints. People are busy and are fighting fires and are exhausted. Zoom fatigue is a thing. But something else is going on, something unconscious and widespread. In many cases, asking people to participate in strategic planning elicits a knee-jerk reaction of defiance, as much as asking them to come into the office, put on business clothes, or head out on a business trip might. Now that they’re in the habit of not doing these things, when someone asks them to quit the habit, their gut response is ‘no’ (I’m too busy, too stressed, too tired, … etc.)

The pandemic should have come with a warning label:

Warning label for short term thinking

Distributed Strategy Development Is the Only Option for this Cycle

An exacerbating factor, of course, is that many people continue to work from home and the idea of doing serious strategic planning via Zoom or MS Teams or Web-ex or Google Meets is altogether new. That said, you can’t afford to allow the strategy muscle to atrophy any longer because:

  1. Elements of your pre-pandemic strategy have been rendered inadequate, incomplete, or irrelevant. As Monitor Deloitte's Global Managing Partner Jonathan Goodman told us in an interview recently, “it’s hard to imagine in a world with so much change, complexity and uncertainty, that the strategic choices you’ve made will or should remain fully intact going forward.”
  2. There are high-stakes choices to be made that you thought you had years to consider (e.g. about talent, work policy, products and services, customer experience, supply chain, real estate, and so on) and with the present and future suddenly compressed, every decision needs to carefully take both into account.
  3. Critical initiatives that had to be paused may still be critical, and are now part of a bigger pile of critical initiatives that must be sorted out.
  4. With vaccines still in testing or earlier phases of development, and many, many months until they can be produced, distributed, in use and protecting large populations - distributed strategy development is the only option.

So it’s high time to get people back to work on strategy, flexing that muscle, and re-introducing the long-term lens into their thinking. And, it’s important to learn how to develop strategy digitally.  

Ramp up strategy, and make it a norm again

How long will it take to unlearn the habit of short-term thinking? In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear says, “At the end of the day, how long it takes to form a particular habit doesn't really matter that much. Whether it takes 50 days or 500 days, you have to put in the work either way. The only way to get to Day 500 is to start with Day 1. So forget about the number and focus on doing the work.”

The key is to force your team back to the table (that’s Day 1) and give them a platform for effective online conversations and collaboration.

We have found that while a video conferencing platform that the team is comfortable with is a good start (most of the companies we work with prefer one of Zoom, MS Teams, or Webex), good conversations on any video platform require protocols, structures and supports that compensate for the physical distance between people.

And because straight-up conversation isn’t usually enough - people also need to brainstorm, draw pictures, and jointly build a few deliverables, for example - a good online whiteboard is also necessary as a shared palette for co-creation. We use Miro or Mural for this purpose.

(You can read here for more of our thoughts and guidance on how to orchestrate good conversations and collaborative work online.)

Your people may be out of the habit of thinking strategically, and that’s dangerous for your organization. It’s time to push back on their resistance and call them back to the table to do the important work of making hard choices.

Don’t wait for them to lift up their heads and tell you “the pandemic is over and we’re ready”.

Do it now and do it well.

Original article posted on Forbes on Nov 23, 2020

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