The dilemma of the strategy focused executive

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Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been working with a few different clients on a wide variety of project types. Working with multiple clients on an ongoing basis isn’t anything new. Part of the value we bring is the perspective we have from working with a variety of organizations. What was new was the drastic difference in the type of work I was doing: everything from crafting a five year technology strategy to rolling out a large reorganization. Tactically speaking, this meant I was moving between blank whiteboards and a flurry of urgent emails and phone calls. As well as the usual interviews, workshops and quality time with PowerPoint. All these activities are right up my alley, but the last few weeks have required an unusual high speed of switch-tasking, luring me into the dangerous world of multi-tasking.

I finally acknowledged a few years ago that I’m not good at multi-tasking. When I’m focused on something, I’m totally focused on it, and when I’m focused on multiple things, I’m focused on nothing. But I am good at switch-tasking, as long as I have enough time, say an hour, on each task, and I really like doing different types of work. So I created the whack-a-mole analogy. Here’s how it works. On the left side of my brain, I’ve got a big, blank whiteboard. Oh, happy place. This is where strategy is created, a plan of attack is made, and that plan is executed. Theoretically, I’d love to spend all my time with that whiteboard, but most of my daily activities are more like a game of whack-a-mole. So I put that over on the right side. And the only way to make progress on the strategy is to dedicate time to it and focus playing whack-a-mole.

So it all sounds great, right? But here’s the problem. Those moles are so tempting. And I like playing whack-a-mole. It gives me an immediate sense of accomplishment. And often times those little things are helping my clients, colleagues or friends, even if it doesn’t help them as much as the whiteboard will eventually. (note: the number representing emails in my work inbox has creeped to 2 in the last 10 minutes since I started typing this blog. I’m not going to look at it until I’m done, but it is starting to make me crazy. My brain actually had the idea that I could look on my iPad because that wouldn’t be cheating!)

This all makes me think about the challenges of being a strategy-focused executive. Except in rare circumstances, we are part time and our clients don’t expect us to respond immediately. But a strategy-focused executive in a large company doesn’t have that luxury. This presents a bit of a dilemma, rooting back to a couple potentially contradictory beliefs about what makes a good strategist:

  1. Strategy requires focused thinking time.
  2. Good strategists have experience implementing their strategies.

So good strategists will be doing strategy and execution. And it takes a strong willed person to do the former while also making progress on the latter. Not that it is all about email, but it is a prime example. If we let ourselves, we could spend all of our days answering email. I don’t think many people knew what to do at work before email told them! It has trained us to be reactive. Getting our brain out of email and other reactive mediums to the blank whiteboard is foreign, and probably more challenging because we aren’t used to having time to think anymore.

The discipline to block time to focus on strategy, whatever that means (for me it is turning off email and phone) is critical. And it is constant. I have to retrain myself after a long game of whack-a-mole. But if you care about what you are up to in this world, spend some quality time with your whiteboard.