Why Don’t We Make Time for Strategy?

Almost every leader wants to make more time for strategic thinking. In one survey of 10,000 senior leaders, 97% said that being strategic was the leadership behavior most important to their organization’s success.

And yet in another study, a full 96% of the surveyed leaders said they lacked the time for strategic thinking. Of course, we’re all oppressed with meetings and overwhelmed with emails.

But leaders, presumably, could take at least some steps to prioritize what they claim to be an imperative. What could account for such a massive misalignment between their stated goals and their actions?

One issue is the incentives put in place by companies. There’s frequent cultural pressure to put in long hours, which researchers have discovered often serve as a proxy for both loyalty and productivity in the modern economy. Research has shown that employees who work more than 50 hours per week earn a 6% premium over their colleagues who work a more regular schedule.

Tethering yourself to your desk may help you power through more emails, but it’s rarely a recipe for innovative strategic thinking. In fact, research reveals that productivity decreases for those who work more than 50 hours per week. What seems to really power creative thinking, according to a Stanford University study, is activities such as taking a short walk, especially in the open. But this behavior may well be penalized in a corporate milieu that prizes face time.

Another barrier to strategic thinking may be internal. At least in the United States, research shows, busyness is a sign of social status. As Silvia Bellezza of Columbia Business School and her colleagues put it, “By telling others that we are busy and working all the time, we are implicitly suggesting that we are sought after.” In addition to the very real demands on our schedules, now there’s also an incentive to lean into the frenzy: It’s a marker of our professional success. Executives may, therefore, be subconsciously reluctant to give up the self-esteem benefits that being busy confers.

Given these pressures, both internal and external that push us toward rote busyness and away from strategic thinking, here are three ways individual leaders can fight back and create the white space they need.

First, it’s important to remember that strategic thinking doesn’t necessarily require large amounts of time; it’s not about taking endless sabbaticals or going on leadership retreats. As per productivity expert David Allen, “You don’t need time to have a good idea, you need space. It takes zero time to have an innovative idea or to make a decision. But if you don’t have psychic space, those things are not necessarily impossible, but are suboptimal.”

Even with limited time and the same amount of responsibilities, it’s far easier to think strategically if you can clear your mind-space by doing simple things such as writing down all of your outstanding tasks in one place. This will help you to properly triage them and you won’t constantly be bothered by the feeling that you have forgotten something.

Second, it’s useful to be clear on where your time is actually being spent. It’s quite possible that there are tasks, which you could combine, defer, or outsource to help buy an extra two hours per week — more than enough to step outside and enter the flow-state to consider the ‘big picture strategy’.

Finally, once we’re aware of the implicit “busy = important” framework in our culture, it can be easier to let it go and adopt another framework that’s more conducive to deep strategic thinking. One alternative view, espoused by Derek Sivers, an entrepreneur and author, is that “busy is what happens when you’re at the mercy of someone else’s schedule.”

By changing the way we think about busyness — from a marker of status to a mark of servitude, it may become easier to say no to the parade of endless obligations such as catch-up calls to informational interviews that skitter across our desks every day.

The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge-based management consulting firm in India, believes that the responsibilities placed upon us are not going to diminish anytime soon. In fact, with global competition increasing further, and as we ascend in our careers, it’s almost certain that we’ll be expected to do more and produce more. Without a concerted effort, ‘strategy’ would easily slip to the bottom of our to-do list, despite our protestations about its importance. By becoming aware of the impediments and taking proactive steps to embed strategic thinking into the professional schedule, one can stand up for goals that s/he recognize as critical.

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