Chapter 7 Strategic Leadership – Project Management and Leadership Challenges, Volume III

Chapter 7

Strategic Leadership

Introduction

Strategic leadership starts with strategic thinking. It is the ability of influencing others to voluntarily make decisions that enhance the prospects for the organization’s long-term success while maintaining long-term financial stability.

The ultimate success in moving into blue ocean leadership is the stage where the competition is carried out with self-management and its results.


Objectives

What do you understand by strategic thinking?

What is blue ocean leadership and how is it different from conventional leadership? How to develop it?

The following are discussed:

  • Strategic Thinking
  • Blue Ocean Leadership

7.1 Strategic Thinking

Project management essentially translates strategy into reality through implementation of projects and programs aligned with strategic goals. Leaders with strategic thinking are forceful in their endeavors for advancement in the strategic direction.

A strategy is the plan and the set of actions to achieve some new result (or mission). In order to do this, a strategist must be comfortable with structuring uncertainty using the data available.

Leaders are required to enhance skills to look for changing circumstances beyond the present to proactively manage arising challenges.

Achieving the synergy for advancement in the strategic direction requires collaborative leadership. It has been discovered that it requires strong skills in four areas: playing the role of a connector, attracting diverse talent, modeling collaboration at the top, and showing a strong hand to keep teams from getting mired in debate. The good news is the research also suggests that these skills are learnable—and help executives to generate exceptional long-term performance.

Habits of True Strategic Thinkers

You’re the boss, but you still spend too much time on the day-to-day matters, distracting from real responsibilities. Here’s how to become the strategic leader your company needs.

  • When you find yourself resisting “being strategic,” because it sounds like a fast track to irrelevance, or vaguely like an excuse to slack off, you’re not alone. Every leader’s temptation is to deal with what’s directly in front of them, because it always seems more urgent and concrete. Unfortunately, if you do that, you put your company at risk. While you concentrate on steering around potholes, you’ll miss windfall opportunities, not to mention any signals that the road you’re on is leading off a cliff.
  • This is a tough job, so make no mistake. “We need strategic leaders!” is a pretty constant refrain at every company, large and small. One reason the job is so tough: No one really understands what it entails. It’s hard to be a strategic leader if you don’t know what strategic leaders are supposed to do.

Adaptive strategic leaders—the kind who thrive in today’s uncertain environment—do these things well, noted as follows:

  1. Anticipate

    The focus in most companies is on what’s directly ahead. Their leaders lack “peripheral vision.” This can leave your company vulnerable to rivals who detect and act on ambiguous signals. To anticipate well, you must:

    • Look for game-changing information at the periphery of your industry
    • Search beyond the current boundaries of your business
    • Build wide external networks to help you better scan the horizon
    • Visualize the future
  2. Think Critically

    “Conventional wisdom” opens you to fewer raised eyebrows and second guessing. But if you swallow every management fad and safe opinion at face value, your company loses all competitive advantage. Critical thinkers question everything. To master this skill, you must force yourself to:

    • Reframe problems to get to the bottom of things, in terms of root causes
    • Challenge current beliefs and mindsets, including your own
    • Uncover hypocrisy, manipulation, and bias in organizational decisions
    • Listen carefully to answers
  3. Interpret

    Face the ambiguity; the temptation is to reach for a fast (and potentially wrong-headed) solution. A good strategic leader holds steady, synthesizing information from many sources before developing a viewpoint. You have to:

    • Seek patterns in multiple sources of data
    • Encourage others to do the same
    • Question prevailing assumptions and test multiple hypotheses simultaneously
    • Involve SME when needed
  4. Decide

    A leader may fall prey to “analysis paralysis.” You need to develop processes, use them, and arrive at a “good enough” position. You have to:

    • Carefully frame the decision to get to the crux of the matter
    • Balance speed, rigor, quality, and agility; leave perfection to higher powers
    • Take a stand even with incomplete information and amid diverse views
    • Show self-confidence and make the best judgment
  5. Align

    Total consensus is rare. A strategic leader must foster open dialogue, build trust, and engage key stakeholders, especially when views diverge. You need to:

    • Understand what drives other people’s agendas, including what remains hidden
    • Bring tough issues to the surface, even when it’s uncomfortable
    • Assess risk tolerance and follow through to build the necessary support
    • Develop a picture of diverge views and find best alignment
  6. Implement

    The implementation of strategic decisions is the real challenge. Very often the strategic plan is kept in secret files and seldom put to action. A plan not implemented has no value. You need to:

    • Align all endeavors/initiatives with the strategic plan
    • Progress on implementation with all vigor
    • Review and check the direction of progression for reaching desired goals
    • Monitor and control the progression
  7. Learn

    Feedback is crucial and harder to come. You have to do what it takes to keep it coming. This is important for failure—as it provides valuable sources of organizational learning. You need to do:

    • Encourage and exemplify honest, rigorous debriefs to extract lessons
    • Shift course quickly if you realize you’re off track
    • Celebrate both success and (well-intentioned) failures that provide insight
    • Analyze failure and find the root cause for learning

Make Up Your Skill Sets

This is a daunting list of tasks; manage to fill in the gaps with necessary skills.

Strategic-thinking leaders manage the following:

  • Deal with uncertainty—What’s the next move? Where should we develop competence? What do we think the competitors are doing? And the list of questions with limited answers goes on. Strategists are responsible for managing and tackling uncertainty in the business context. Strategists should be comfortable dealing with uncertainty but pose good questions (with hard-to-find answers) to structure the uncertainty.
  • Find insightful dataAfter asking all the tough questions, try sources and venues for any and all relevant data. Identify key insights—it is the duty of a strategist to find relevant data and identify key insights that bring clarity to the uncertainty.
  • Define the result (or mission)Armed with insights, define the mission to achieve some new result; examples include reducing operational costs, increasing revenue through product innovation, or improving marketing ROI.
  • Articulat e the plan and actionDefine a plan and take action—this typically involves knowing what resources are available, defining how you plan to use those resources, and ultimately, using those resources to achieve the mission. Strategists must mash up the identified insights, the mission, and the resources provided as well as:
  1. Articulate a vision
  2. Define goals
  3. Set clear objectives to march the organization’s resources going forward.
  4. Understand the needs and expectations of stakeholders

Strategic thinking leads to competing with self-management and self-performance, which is an area of blue ocean.

7.2 Blue Ocean Leadership

The following text has been adapted from Kim and Mauborgne (2015):

Research has found that people have a natural aversion to idleness: They’ll go out of way to stay busy, even if they have to invent things to do. But being too busy can be counterproductive. Studies have also shown that we have a bias toward action: When faced with a problem, we prefer to act, even if it would be best to pause first or do nothing. Together, both of these behaviors show that choosing to be busy is the easy choice. Being productive, by contrast, is much more challenging. What helps remedy this dilemma? Take time to step back and reflect on a regular basis. Reflection helps us understand the actions we’re considering and choose the ones that will make us productive. Even 15 minutes of planning each morning can help. So, the next time you feel busy, stop and think about what you actually need to get done.

The above noted scenario is essentially a result of disengagement of team players from the work and their desired results. Keeping busy to look busy is a tendency of self-deceiving for short terms.

According to Gallup’s 2013 State of American Workplace report, 50% of employees merely put their time in, while the remaining 20% act out their discontent in counterproductive ways, negatively influencing their coworkers, missing days on the job, and driving customers away through poor service. Gallup estimates that the 20% group alone costs the US economy around half a trillion dollars each year.

What’s the reason for the widespread team members’ disengagement? According to Gallup, poor leadership is a key cause.

Blue Ocean Leadership is required to engage all team players in moving the organization forward by releasing their untapped talent and energy. It starts from matching each team member’s strength with the right task to help enhance engagement.

Blue ocean leadership (Figure 7.1) involves a four-step process developed by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne that allows leaders to gain a clear understanding of just what changes it would take to bring out the best in their people, while conserving their most precious resource: time.

The Four Steps of Blue Ocean Leadership

  1. See your leadership reality
  2. Develop alternative leadership profiles
  3. Select to-be leadership profiles
  4. Institutionalize new leadership practices
  • Blue ocean leadership puts as much emphasis on what acts and activities leaders should eliminate and reduce in what they do as on what they should raise and create to become highly effective leader.
  • Blue ocean leaders win because their plates are cleared of low-value activities so that they are free to lead and focus on what matters centrally. Team players win because they are now getting the leadership they need to succeed.
  • Blue ocean leadership uses analytic tools like the leadership canvas (a spread sheet to capture relevant info, refer: www.owlfoxdean/leadeship-canvas) and the Blue Ocean Leadership Grid explained in Figure 7.2 to make this happen. These highly visual tools allow leaders and organizations to see, measure, and track leadership changes in a real way, which is much more practical and easier than trying to track changes in a leader’s values and behavioral traits.

Unlike most research in the field of leadership that has largely drawn on psychology and cognitive science, Blue Ocean Leadership has been developed by Kim and Mauborgne to look upon the field of strategy to inform the practice of leadership in business. Key differences from conventional leadership approaches are as follows:

  1. Focus on Acts and Activities: The implicit assumption is that changes in values, qualities, and behavioral styles ultimately translate into high performance. The blue ocean leader focuses on what acts and activities leaders need to undertake to boost their team’s motivation and project results. The emphasis is important because it is easier to change team members’ acts and activities than their values, qualities, and behavioral traits.
  2. Connect Closely to Market Realities: The blue ocean leader asks team members who face market realities for their input on how their leaders hold them back and what could be done to help them best serve customers and other stakeholders. When the team is engaged in defining leadership practices that will enable them to thrive, those practices are connected to market realities against which they need to perform. This makes them highly motivated to create the best possible profile for leaders and to inspire new solutions. Their willing cooperation maximizes the acceptance of a new profile for leadership while minimizing implementation cost.
  3. Distribute Leadership Across all Managerial Levels: The key to a successful organization is to have empowered leaders at all levels. The outstanding performance comes down to the motivation and action of middle and frontline leaders. Blue Ocean Leadership is designed to be applied across three distinctive levels: top, middle, and frontline. It calls for profiles of leaders that are tailored to very different tasks, degree of power, and environment found at each level.

The Blue Ocean Leadership Grid

This is an analytic tool that challenges team members to think which acts and activities leaders should do less of because they hold members back and which acts and activities leaders should do more of because they inspire members to give their all (Figure 7.2).

Current activities from the leaders profiles, that may add value along with new activities. The team members believe “What acts and activities do leaders invest their time and intelligence” that would add a lot of value if leaders started doing them, are assigned to the four categories in the grid. Organizations may use the grids to develop new profiles of effective leadership.

Four Steps for Execution

  1. Respected senior managers spearhead the process.
  2. People are engaged in defining what leaders should do.
  3. People at all levels have a say in the final decision.
  4. It’s easy to assess whether expectations are being met.

Summary

Learn achieving synergy for advancement in a strategic direction, which requires strong leadership skills in four areas: playing the role of connector, attracting diverse talent, modeling collaboration at the top, and showing a strong hand to keep teams from getting mired in debate. It starts with strategic thinking.

Strategic leaders must have a good understanding of business environment and focus on manageable factors for making a forceful way to desired end results. This chapter provides an understanding of challenges at different levels of the project management framework for preparing leaders.

Blue Ocean Leadership needs to be focused on to manage and make way for managing the market trends and creating an ocean to stay ahead of all competitions.

References

Covey, S.R. n.d. “Calls These Principles the “Laws of The Universe.” https://www.quora.com/What-Principles-was-Stephen-Covey-speaking-of University Press.

Kim, W.C., and R. Mauborgne. Fall, 2015. “Blue Ocean Leadership,” Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2004/10/blue-ocean-strategy

Schwartz, J., J. Bersin, B. Pelster, March 07, 2014, “Global Human Capital Trends 2014 Survey”, Deloitte University Press. https://www2.deloitte.com/insights/us/en/focus/human-capital-trends/2014/human-capital-trends-2014-survey-top-10-findings.html