Strategic thinking – You need to drop your established thought models!

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How do you change your mindset from thinking tactical to approaching challenges from a strategic perspective? Heck, what is the difference between the two to begin with?

If you think tactically, you are focused on the next small step from where you are now. You think about the next natural thing to do. Indeed, very often, that’s exactly what you need to do: “do the next right thing” (from Frozen 2 for all of you who have little kids). The challenge is that while you progress with that approach, it will not always be in the direction you should go. You move forward, but not with a clear target in mind.

Thinking strategically turns that model around as it starts from where you want to be in the future. It doesn’t concern itself with the immediate next step but looks at the bigger picture and the more distant future. Strategic thinking asks what that ideal future would look like. Then, and only then, it goes into figuring out how you could get there.

Tactical thinking is our natural tendency – after all, our ancestors had to be much more occupied with finding their next meal than with planning five years ahead. Strategic thinking started as they settled down and needed to think ahead to the fall harvest. It expanded the opportunities they were presented with.

If you want to have true impact, you need to think strategically. Fluency between tactical and strategic thinking makes you a leader.

To think strategically, you need to change your thought models in these three ways:

Always start with the ‘why’ – Before you can even get into what the ideal end state should be, you need to get clarity on what you want to achieve. WHY are you doing this? What is the change you want to drive and why? How is the new situation different, and why does that matter? Understand your WHY, and you will know where you need to go!

Think big and forget what you currently know – Very often, we hold ourselves back by what we know or what we think we know. We subconsciously hold to constraints that are often not real but just assumed. We have solutions in mind that limit how creatively we entertain out-of-the-box approaches. We are afraid of the challenges of taking on big scary goals, and with that, we unconsciously aim a lot lower than we should. Forget about all of those – think about what the end state looks like in an ideal world. If you had no constraints at all, what would you work towards?

Incremental thinking – The last and hardest mindset shift is to let go of incremental thinking. This is super hard. At Amazon, it took me about a year to train new – highly educated – employees to make that mental leap. We all tend to “think forward” from what we have. What is the next set of improvements to the toolset we currently use? What are the next adaptations to the process? While this is nice and good for continuous improvement efforts, it precludes disruptive changes – and disruptive changes are what really moves you ahead. You must avoid incremental thinking as the actual new ideal end-state might require you to give up what you currently have.

Don’t start from what you have. Start from where you want to be and then figure out how you could get there.

Thinking strategically, or “thinking big” is one of my three favorite leadership principles at the core of Amazon’s approach to challenges and opportunities. Here is how the official definition goes:

Think Big
Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. They think differently and look around corners for ways to serve customers.


Did you like this post? Want to read more? Check out our newest book!

Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

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If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Don’t get stuck in your plan

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After talking about scenario planning last week, I will now talk about the need to be willing to let go of your plans at a moment’s notice. More specifically, while your overall strategy will likely persist, I bet you that your tactics will need to adapt as you go from planning and envisioning to execution and reality check (or “WTSHTF” as they say).

Have a plan but don’t get stuck in it.

Having a plan is critical. You have to start somewhere. It’s even better if you thought about multiple different scenarios and have plans for each of them. Still, reality will be different from what you envisioned, and your plans need to adjust – right away and in realtime.

“No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” – Helmuth von Moltke (1800-1891)

That is not to say that one should not plan. As a matter of fact, special forces are known for locking themselves into a room before a mission and then meticulously planning out for any scenario and complication they can possibly imagine. However, when it’s go-time, they must modify their plans, adjust, or completely give them up. They get new data, situations change, and they must improvise on the spot. Business consultants would say that they need to be “agile”.

The other day I played chess with our 9-year-old son. He had set a ‘trap’ and waited for me to go into it. In fact, he waited for the whole game while I took his other figures off the board one by one and finally forced him to give up. It wasn’t that his plan was bad – he just didn’t realize that the situation changed. Insisting on his initial assumption and plan got him from a promising position to a hopeless one.

Have a plan, but keep your mind open for what happens, be flexible, adapt. Don’t try to enforce your plan at all costs. – Plan thoroughly, and then be flexible.

While you should start with a plan, you need to keep your mind open to recognize change and adapt or discard your plan if needed.

Traditional martial arts pushes that notion to the extreme, where mastery means not thinking about what you’re doing but just letting it happen, reacting naturally. In martial arts, the goal is to have so much training in advance (i.e., scenario planning and practicing) that reactions in challenging situations become intuitive, and you don’t need or even want a preconceived plan. You perceive with a relaxed mind and react to the inputs you will get.

Build a plan, play scenarios through in your head, draw confidence that you have answers for many of the possible challenges. Then stop ruminating and start executing. Don’t try to enforce your plan – it would break. Observe what’s happening, see what changes, and do what’s needed.

Bruce Lee would say: “Be like water.”


Did you like this post? Want to read more? Check out our newest book!

Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

The difference between scenario planning and worrying about the future

We live in times of constant change. Things that were true and known yesterday aren’t any longer, and the future often holds too many unknowns to plan for what’s coming confidently.

That constant change can cause a feeling of uncertainty and even anxiety. However, I prefer to see changes as opportunities. Change means that current approaches are being revisited. It means uncertainty, but it also brings the opportunity to get rid of old structures and behaviors that didn’t work as well as we thought.

How we approach change is the key to how we perceive it and how it impacts us.

First of all, we need to ensure that the majority of our mental energy is spent in the now, not the tomorrow or yesterday. What-if and what-could-have-been musings are only of value if we use them as learning opportunities for what we are doing right now. Otherwise, they quickly become wasted energy and distractions.

Now, as we think about coming changes and uncertainties (e.g., political developments, potential upcoming regulations, organizational changes), it is essential to avoid dwelling and being stuck in the phase of uncertainty and anxiety. We can guess endlessly as to what a specific change might mean for us. We won’t know until the dominos fall, and things get in motion. All along, we could have spent a lot of time feeling helpless and miserable until that decision day comes.

A much more productive approach is scenario planning: think about what the possible (plausible) outcomes could be, what those would mean for you, and what actions you would take. Think through your plan, then put it away until you need it and focus on the NOW again.

The point of scenario planning is to have done the mental homework and put it then away and not be stuck in the future what-ifs. Don’t be the deer in the headlights.

List possible scenarios – The starting point for scenario planning is to list all likely future outcomes. Given a particular unknown, what could happen, and what would the new circumstance be once the dice fell? What are the different options for how a situation could shake out? Try to make a complete list of all outcomes that are likely (not all that could be, or you will never stop adding to your list). Three to five possible scenarios usually is a good number.

Understand the trigger signals – Think about the trigger signal for each scenario. How would you know as early as possible that you are entering one scenario (expected outcome) rather than the other? Early signaling is the critical piece. Once the dice have fallen, you want to make sure you will adapt to the new situation as swiftly as possible.

Know your actions – Think through your best course of action for each scenario. When the chips fall, you don’t want to start thinking about what you will do next. Rather you want to have a plan ready that you can just pull out the drawer as soon as you see one of your early trigger signals show up. Be ready, have plans and actions, and then let go again and turn your attention to the now. Your future plans are only valuable in the future, not the now. If you get stuck in future what-if plans, you lose out on today’s opportunities.

Lay the groundwork (if needed) – If your plans require any groundwork to be laid and the investment is not too high, do it ahead of time. Be ready as much as you can, but find the right tradeoff between investing in things that might never happen and opportunities that you missed because you weren’t ready for them. Finding the right balance on this is the tricky part.

Move back to now – Don’t get stuck in scenario planning and future what-ifs!! Every minute you spend on dwelling in the future is a minute you have missed out on actual current opportunities. If you spend your time getting ready for the future, you will do a crappy job being successful in the now. Remember, only the now and today is what really matters.

Scenario planning allows you to mind-game and strategize an uncertain future that might scare you. Use it for that and do it to the point where you have a decent set of plans. Then stop dwelling in the future and move back to the now and here. That is the true value of scenario planning. Also, remember that no plan survives first contact with reality – more about that next week…

Get your ducks in a row and your dominos lined up. Then move back to the here and now and stop dwelling in future what-ifs. Don’t let potential future circumstances hold you back from what you can achieve TODAY!


Did you like this post? Want to read more? Check out our newest book!

Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Do you know your core values?

We had an IT Community Senior Leadership Team retreat this week during which we attended a workshop on the ‘New World of Work’. The discussions reminded me, among other things, of the importance of knowing your personal core values, the alignment of shared values in a team, and the power of working off those shared values.

Personal values have always been a huge guiding principle for me, and I make most of my big decisions relative to alignment with those values. While that usually happens subconsciously, the training reminded me to check in on my values again deliberately.

Do you know your core values?

Our core values – whether we are aware of them or not – define how we think and guide our decisions. They also have a significant impact on whether we’re happy and satisfied or not. Core values made me seek new jobs and leave existing ones. They made me push for extensive life changes. Whenever my situation aligned with my core values, I was happy and felt accomplished. When I had made choices for other reasons (e.g., money), I usually was frustrated and often times felt miserable after a short time.

As I said, I was curious and revisited my values to see if they had changed. They didn’t.

Here are the core values I hold dear and close to my heart:

  • Family
  • Integrity
  • Autonomy

I would encourage you to reflect on your core values as well if you haven’t done so lately. Share them with your coworkers if you feel like doing so, or keep them as your own personal guiding star.

Getting down to three core values is much harder than you would think. Most people can easily brainstorm their 10-15 most important values, but how do you pick the three that matter most (and if you’re like me, you cannot really consistently memorize or handle any list that is larger than three entries)?

Here are two ways to explore your three core values:

  1. Write down your 10-15 values on flip cards – one core value per card. Then give away three of them. Then another three. Then two more. Keep going until you’re down to the remaining three that you would fight for really hard. You will see that it gets really painful as you get closer to the three. There are values that you really like, they’re just not your top three, and you have to give them away.
  2. Use an app to guide (i.e., force) you through the process. On the iPhone, I found this free app that does a pretty good job: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/valuescardsort/id1510029675. What I like about the app is that it’s easy, quick, and intuitive. What I liked less is that you are limited to the values the programmer put into it.

Go explore or revisit your core values!

If you’re interested, here are the values that the app came back for me. Mostly the same; I think the difference is semantics. Pick whatever way of exploration you like best.

  • Self-care
  • Trust
  • Honesty
  • Authenticity
  • Independence

Did you like this post? Want to read more?

Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Effective communications – The Why, What, and How

Effective communication is one of the most important skills as we advance in our careers and lives. The more senior we become, the more we need to achieve things through others. To do so, we first need to convince them to follow our lead. Even if we’re not on the brink of a CEO promotion, we need to convince our peers, managers, or spouses of our ideas.

Communication happens in many different channels, in writing, in meetings, or in 1:1 conversations. The principles of effective communication are always the same: 1) active listening, 2) maintaining a laser-focus on the topic, and 3) a clear thought structure that our partner(s) can follow along.

Today I want to talk about 3) – structuring our thoughts and communication in a way that makes it easy for the recipient to digest, follow along, and buy into our logic. The magic is to always explain the Why, What, and How – in that order!

The Why, What, and How are critically important to convey any idea or suggestion. In presenting ideas, we need to remind ourselves that while we have all the context, causation, and details, our communication partners most likely don’t. Don’t assume everyone has as much context on the topic as you do! – If they did, they would have brought up the idea to you, not the other way around.

If you don’t re-create the full thought context with your communications partner, you cannot expect them to come to the same conclusions that you came to or to agree with your proposal.

The Why

This is also affectionately called the ‘So What’.

Everything starts with this. Tell me why I should care to listen and follow your thoughts. Why does this matter? Why does it matter to me? Why is it important, and why should I care?

If you can establish why a particular topic is important or why a problem needs to be solved, you have already won have the battle. On the flip side, if you don’t have a Why it will be hard to gain support for your idea – there are so many things that already have a strong Why established and thus will take priority.

The What

Ok, you got me with the Why. I know that I need to pay attention, now tell me what needs to be fixed or created.

Don’t get ahead of yourself; don’t jump to solutions. I’m not yet ready for that. I’ve signed up for your cause. Now let me know where I need to direct my attention. If you can get me focused on the right what, you have practically won, and I will crave to learn what I can do for you.

The How

NOW is the time to get to what you wanted to start with. Not a second earlier. For you, this is a long build-up to something that is crystal-clear to you – for me, it’s essential for being able to follow your thoughts.

How can we solve the issue we identified in the What and established as a priority in the Why. Tell me what you want to do and where I can help. What is your plan, where do you need input, where can I help. Be specific, precise, and concise.

Well…?

Let’s put some meat to the theory with an example. Let’s say you want to sell the idea of establishing a weekly metrics review meeting for Ops tickets (totally made up).

A bad communication would be:

“Hey, I want to identify key metrics for the ticketing systems. We should change some of the ways we measure them and then have a weekly review meeting with the Ops team.”

Most likely, my (unspoken) reaction as a recipient would be either “???”, or “sure, now leave me alone, I have important work to do”.

A better Why/What/How approach could be:

“I noticed that we are really slow with certain tasks while onboarding new employees. Often they don’t get proper access to their systems for more than two weeks. That delays their onboarding, and we’re practically wasting their resources for the first month.

I looked a little closer at the process, and it seems that Ops tickets are a key contributor to those delays. However, we don’t have good metrics for tickets right now, and so we can’t really diagnose where the problem lies or how to fix it.

What I would suggest is to establish a consistent way to measure the performance of such tickets. With that, we can identify key bottlenecks, brainstorm potential improvement areas, and measure if those improvements have the desired impact over time. What do you think about establishing key metrics and reviewing them with Ops leaders every week?”

You would have caught my attention on the second one, as no one likes employees who are eager to contribute but are constraint by systems or processes.

Bonus tips for emails

  • Spend time and energy on formatting – White spaces and paragraph breaks emphasize the structure and flow of your thoughts! Nobody wants to read a solid blurb of text and re-engineer the logical structure.
  • Re-read your message twice – Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes. If you have no context at all, does what you wrote still makes sense?


Did you like this post? Want to read more?

Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Working backwards

A recent presentation on Journey mapping reminded me of a different approach for designing solutions that I learned at Amazon:

Working backwards (from the customer experience).

Amazon uses this process for every single project. If there has ever been a secret sauce to what Amazon does, it’s the working backwards process.

The idea is to not start from the current situation and constraints, but rather to forget all that for a while and start from the end state. What SHOULD the perfect customer experience be? What is the perfect end state? What would we do if we were in an unconstrained situation?

Changing your mindset to that view before kicking off a project or designing a solution will allow you to think outside the box. You will think about what the right approach is, not what the easiest next step will be. You will think about what’s right for the customer, not about how hard it is to make necessary changes.

After you have clarity on the end state, you start working backwards. In order to get to that end state, what interim state do you need to reach before? What’s the stage before that? – Rinse and repeat until you reach all the way back to your current status quo.

The HUGE benefit is that you start from where you want to be in the future as opposed to what the next incremental state is from where you are now. You will find that you will end up in vastly different places with these two approaches.

Don’t be frustrated though. In my time with Amazon, I found that working backwards is the hardest mental model to teach. Every single new employee struggled and it took them many attempts until they actually worked backwards from an ideal end state. This could take months of intellectual struggle. We were all raised to think incrementally, and those thought patterns are burned into our brains.

Stop thinking incrementally – think backwards!

So, how does Amazon do the working backwards process?

They start with a press release. The very first thing one does when pitching or starting a project is to write what the press release at launch should look like. How is this new solution different, what is the new customer experience, what are the new benefits?

This is one page – never more. If it generates enough excitement, the work begins, digging into constraints, problems to overcome, and investments that will be required. The important part is that you have to drop all your knowledge of constraints or challenges when writing the one-page press release.

That’s how Prime, one-day shipping, Alexa, and everything else you’ve ever seen from Amazon were born.


Did you like this post? Want to read more?

Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.