Strategically planned thinking

I know.  You don’t have time to think, let alone think strategically.  But it’s a skill that you can learn and it’s an activity that can add considerable value to your business, so whilst it may not seem Urgent, it falls firmly into the Important quadrant.

I have coached teams to brainstorm more effectively in the past, but what I’m talking about here is actually a solitary task by nature, as it’s important to give your brain some space to be able to comprehend and innovate.  There are a series of approaches, but everything starts (as always) with some good planning.

First & foremost, you need to have a challenge to answer and an open mind.  The challenge could be a positioning or repositioning, new product development or any issue of strategic value to your business.  It could also be something far more mundane, so long as it’s a thorny issue of sorts.  The open mind is required as it pre-supposes that you’ve not already made a decision… post-rationalisation is far easier and less time consuming and some may say it’s a waste of time.

Next, schedule some time.  This may be easier for some than others and I can visualise you looking months ahead to try to find a window.  If you need to look more than two or three weeks ahead, you have other challenges to address.  A day is a good period for thought on a significant issue, but it could as easily be a couple of hours or a couple of days.  The approaches are similar except that you need to be more regimented still, the shorter the time.  Whatever the time window available, it is good to start from the beginning of the day.

Think about where you will perform this thinking.  The office is a real no-no as there are too many distractions… it needs to be somewhere quiet, with access to a computer so long as it doesn’t dominate the space.  The dining room table should suffice as a cost effective location for most people provided you remove the dressings… and the kids toys!

Start to ease your mind into the problem in the days prior to the session and a good way of capturing your thoughts during this period is with the liberal use of Post-it notes, a technique I will forever be indebted to Philip Walker for showing me.  Write one thought on each Post-it and put it in a pile for use on the day.

The time immediately to each side of the session should be left fallow for as long as possible.  You need to resolve or or at least park any urgent issues by close of play the night before, leaving you with the scope for a relaxing evening and a good night’s sleep.  Would it be prescriptive of me to suggest that as you turn the lights out, you tell yourself, honestly, that you’ll have a deep sleep and will wake fully with a big smile the moment the alarm sounds?  It may sound kooky, but it really does work.

Take your time in the morning – it’s a thinking day rather than a work day and as such you need to remain chilled.  Leave your phone, PDA, computer, pager etc in the OFF mode.  Workaholics may need to consult the user manual to achieve this.  If you have early post (no, I didn’t think so) then ignore it.  In fact, I met someone a couple of months ago who suggested opening your mail just once a week… I’ve been testing it and it’s really quite liberating, although it does need to be adapted to the nature of your work.

Start with your aims for the session and write them down.  Bottom out what you really want to end up with and any immediate thoughts that occur to you around that goal.  Next, split the time up mentally into hour-long chunks.  Think of it as a circuit training session, using a variety of mental muscles rather than a marathon.  I find that if I make a cup of tea on the hour, my bladder will be ready for the kettle to go on again an hour later!  I concede that water would be better from a hydration point of view, but I’m a Twinings tea man and that’s that!

The following hour-long sessions are only suggestions and the order may depend on your objective.

Read your existing notes and arrange them into some semblance of order on the table in front of you, whether by time, function or subject.  Spend some time thinking around these and write out more Post-its as thoughts come… it’s okay, use as many as you like: I bought shares!  Organise the new notes.

Spend some time on the internet researching around the subject or read around it in books.  I actually use mind-maps to condense ideas and books that I have read so that I can review useful information quickly when I need it, but you can do similar by speed reading the conclusions from each chapter.  Capture learning on the Post-its and add to your table in the appropriate place.

I mostly tend to avoid information about the industry I’m working in at the time, which may sound odd until you realise that your output will be far more original.  Think of similar problems or challenges in different industries or contexts and delve into those first.

Periodically review the post-its and see whether you are approaching possible answers or solutions.  If there is information that you realise you need, for example primary research or comment from another source, make a note of it for later.  If you don’t complete the thinking, you will at least have a working plan of how to do it.  If your mind wanders onto other ideas (and it will because you’ve set it free), write them down on Post-its and park them for another day.

If you’ve taken the whole day, remember to eat something and if possible, go for a walk half way through.  It really is surprising how powerful a tonic a walk is to the processing power of the brain.

You can follow your nose to determine a variety of other approaches that can be utilised in the hour-long sessions, each one adding to the body of knowledge, but at a certain point you need to start bringing the process to a close, capturing the information in a different, more definitive way.  The Post-its should be a reference tool by this stage and the answers should actually be in your head.

I find a picture on one page helps me focus more easily on what’s missing so I use a blank sheet of paper to draw out the answer (or possible answers), annotating with supporting information as necessary.  Once you have this, it’s much easier to type direct into a document or presentation as required.

Have a clear finish time and work towards this soft deadline.  If I spend a day on a task like this, I’ll finish at 4.30pm but leave the materials hanging around to clear up later, when my mind has a chance of looking at them with fresh eyes.  This has an additional benefit of allowing you some time to ease back gently into the outside world before it heads for home.  Try to steer clear of stress though, as you will then be able to look back at your day in a positive way and make even better use of the techniques in the future.

Rest assured, once you’ve tried this approach, you won’t have so much of a problem scheduling it next time around!

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