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The Champion Forum Podcast

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"The 6 Disciplines of Strategic Thinking" with Michael Watkins

Thank you for listening to The Champion Forum Podcast with Jeff Hancher! In a rapidly changing world, how do you find time to think strategically about what your company needs to do to thrive in the next 5-10 years? And if you do have time to strategize, how do you ensure you can implement your solutions and remain adaptive? Today, we welcome Michael Watkins back to the podcast to discuss his new book, "The Six Disciplines of Strategic Thinking." We'll talk about what leaders should be focused on, how to build an adaptive culture, and what leaders miss when they don't have a habit of receiving feedback.

About Michael Watkins

Dr. Michael Watkins is an accomplished author of over 10 books, including "Your Next Move: The Leader's Guide to Navigating Major Career Transitions," and the international bestseller "The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at all Levels," which The Economist called "the on-boarding bible." He is also the co-founder of Genesis Advisers and a member of the Thinkers50 Hall of Fame. His latest book is called "The Six Disciplines of Strategic Thinking."

Why did you write "The Six Disciplines of Strategic Thinking"?

We live in a time of extraordinary turbulence. Leaders face wars, global tensions, AI advancements, and more. To survive change, you must think strategically, be an adaptive organization, and grow resilient leaders. I primarily work with CEOs, but the CEO can't do this alone. They need to build teams that can think and act strategically as well.

How do you build a culture of innovation and adaptability?

It is a bit of hiring and a bit of developing. If you can't change the mindsets, change the minds. You start by regularly imagining the plausible ways the future can evolve. Take your best guess, and then imagine a few situations that go further toward the edges. What is the plausible range of scenarios? Once you have imagined the future, reach back to prepare. This approach is called back-casting. Ask yourself, what are the breakpoints? How do we create options for ourselves when option A or B occurs instead of our best guess? Get other people involved! The best visions are shared visions.

Q: Does your business currently have a culture of innovation and adaptability? Why or why not? How comfortable are you receiving new ideas from your team? What would help you be more flexible as a leader? As an employee?

How do leaders align their teams to the vision?

Once you've defined the vision, you have to communicate that vision and build alliances within and outside your organization to accomplish what you want to do. One challenge in getting people to buy into the vision is finding capacity for leaders in the middle. These leaders are often very good people who are pushed to execute, so you need to free up some capacity so they can buy in. Every company area has its initiatives, but they all tend to affect the middle layer. No one is looking at the whole picture and how these initiatives hurt and overwhelm middle leaders. Michael Porter says that strategy is about knowing what you won't do. If you don't know what you're not going to do, you don't have a strategy. Execution is not doing those things, which is, in some ways, much harder. 

Why do leaders fail to get buy-in and input from front-line workers and mid-level managers?

Sometimes, they want to maintain the purity of what they decide to do. They feel that it's going to take too much time to get buy-in from lower-ranking employees. However, even finding a sub-group of those employees to help give their insight and create a plan will do wonders. You need to consult and engage authentically with people a few rows down your organization about your strategy to avoid a huge mess. Leaders who take the time to have those conversations reap the benefits. They get that reality test early on and find out what's true. Some leadership teams are engaged in magical thinking, and the organization is waving goodbye as they go. Get other people involved and engaged early.

Q: How involved are lower-tier leaders and front-line employees in decision-making? How often do you seek their input? Describe a time when you got feedback from an employee a few levels down from you. What was their feedback? How did you receive it? Was it helpful? Why or why not?

How do you get feedback?

You have to run feedback as a continuous process embedded into your systems. Do you have a system in place so you can sense and respond? You have no chance of adapting or improving if you're not seeing and getting feedback. The first questions I ask leadership when I start working with them are: 1. Do you have a shared view of reality? In other words, are you on the same page? and 2. How do you sense and respond to what's going on in your environment? You may have to delegate those one-on-one questions. One kind of survey that is helpful in a couple of organizations I work with is an anniversary survey. This questionnaire provides information about employee attitudes, culture, engagement, and what they would improve. Let's assume anniversaries are spread over the year, so you get continuous feedback on what's happening that you don't get if you wait six months to do the next engagement survey. Surveys are not a substitute for focus groups or one-on-ones. You should make it a part of the ethos of your organization. 

What you'll learn in "The Six Disciplines of Strategic Thinking"

Strategic thinking is necessary but not sufficient. You still need to be decisive and execute. People will say, "I'm too busy running the business to think strategically." Or they will think they have to be creative to think strategically. The reality is that you can improve people's strategic thinking ability with a few habits. Some of the value of the book is to help people be much more precise about how to define strategic thinking. Even if you're not in a job that requires strategic thinking on a day-to-day basis, you can develop a way of communicating that uses the strategies. 

Application Activities:

  1. What systems do you have in place for regular feedback? Review your system to determine the last time you collected feedback about the current state of your culture. If you still need a system, ask your team how they like to give feedback. Do they prefer anonymous or one-on-one? Do they like surveys or focus groups? Decide on one feedback strategy (survey, focus group, one-on-one conversation) and implement it this quarter. If you already collect regular feedback, how are you using it? Are the questions helpful? Ask your team if there are any questions they wish you would ask. 

  2. Have a strategic thinking session with your team. (Or read Michael Watkins's book as a team and then have a strategic thinking session!) Write out current challenges and anticipated challenges on a whiteboard. Ask colleagues in similar businesses what trends they are seeing. Ask your staff about the challenges that have come up for them in the last five years and what problems they see appearing. To start, don't worry about solutions. Just come up with a few ways the future might look. In later sessions, you can focus on how your business can adapt to those changes and possible strategies.

Connect with Michael Watkins


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