Posted in Blog

How Do You Move from Thinking Operationally to Strategically?

A colleague recently asked me this question, and I’ve been reflecting on my answer. It’s a good one that I’ve never asked someone else before nor thought about conscientiously.

I feel like my comfort zone, especially in this shelter-in-place time with no childcare while working from home, is to just focus on daily operations. Make a reasonable to-do list of the work that has to be done today and get it done. But, my role on projects and as a consultant is to be strategic and support my clients in developing and delivering on a strategy every day. I need to see the forest and the trees. How do I make sure the strategy isn’t forgotten?

First, let me define how I use the terms operationally and strategically in this context. Operations is the trees, the work that needs to get done now for the deliverable that’s coming due soon. It may include teamwork, doing the work myself, or collaborating with others, but it is focused on keeping the project moving forward. Strategy relates to the forest and thinking about the big picture, like ensuring the project team is solving the real problem, involving the right people, and anticipating how to overcome obstacles.

Now, some strategic work is built into project management tasks. Just the act of creating a project plan with a work breakdown structure, schedule, budget, staffing plan, etc. leads to the need for a strategy. It’s also not uncommon to analyze financial reports, create risk mitigation plans, and make adjustments based on what is learned throughout the project, which may cause you to tweak your larger plans.

Here are some concrete ways I’ve expanded beyond daily operations to think more strategically about my work. These tiny, regular habits have impacted how I approach all of my work.

Tip 1: Schedule Time for It on Your Calendar

I set aside 30 minutes a week on a Friday afternoon to schedule my work to dos for the next week. I block out time in my calendar to focus on major deliverables across projects and schedule meetings with people I know I need to coordinate with to improve the work. Although this practice is rather tactical, it’s also at this time that I’m asking myself what to anticipate for each project, what risks exist that may throw off the plan, and what can I do to mitigate any risks.

Tip 2: Delegate

Delegation is an age-old tip, but I had to make this practice a daily part of my work processes for it to occur more often. I’ve done this by adding “What can you delegate?” to my daily to-do list. By asking myself this question, I’ve added a forcing mechanism that allows me to support other’s professional development, offload work that I really shouldn’t be doing at my level anymore (even if I’ve done it before for years), and frees up my brain for more strategic work.

To delegate, though, you need someone who is available to take on the work. That’s not always easy if you don’t have people who report directly to you, so it comes from fostering relationships on your project teams to understand everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, figure out what their professional development goals are and how you can support them, and then build a network you can access over time. The bonus is that this network can also help you find professional development opportunities too.

Tip 3: Constantly Communicate and Connect Others

I’ve made it a habit every time I finish a meeting, read an email, or conclude a phone call to think about what I learned and who else needs to have the information. I’m trying to think about how information relates to each other, how the people connected to the project work together, and what impacts there will be based on what I just learned.

Now, I’m certainly not trying to overload people’s inboxes with unnecessary information. Instead, I’m trying to connect people. For example, if we’re updating a training course that’s based on a policy we’re rewriting, then I need to make sure the training team knows when the policy changes. If I suspect more changes late in the development cycle, then I need to make sure leadership knows of the risks and impacts and come up with a plan to help mitigate the risks.

Alternatively, if I’m in a meeting and learn about a new innovation another project has adopted, I’m thinking about how it will benefit my other clients. I then have to add items to my to-do list to make sure I follow-up on those thoughts or they will escape my brain, never to be thought about again. I live and die by what’s on my to-do list.

I think it’s important to conclude that during this turbulent time in our work lives and careers, that it may be difficult or impossible to think about long-term strategy in the same way or as frequently. But, if you want to add more strategic thought to your work, then I suggest developing tiny, regular habits like these examples I provided. They don’t have to be the same habits because they have to work for you, your workflow, and your needs. Once they become habits, though, you won’t have to think twice about it.

Photo by Anastasia Petrova on Unsplash

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