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

thik big

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

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.

Amazon’s PR FAQs – My tips and tricks

For my Amazon friends: I stumbled upon my old notes on how to write strong PR FAQs.

They are still true and trusted – not only for the specific Amazon PR FAQ document, but more generally for business communication that is targeted to convey a complex idea and convince people of it’s merits (e.g. strategy proposals, business plans).

Start from the WHY!!

  • Get your numbers early! If you have placeholders, you don’t have a business case. You might think you have one but you don’t know! It’s about numbers, not wishful thinking and assumptions.
  • Get the problem statement right! Until you have that, nothing else makes sense. Once you have it, everything else falls in place.

The ONE thing!

  • Focus on the core, the most important thing. There will be many things that you want to achieve – focus on the one that matters the most, move everything else to the appendix. I know it hurts, but you have to do it!
  • Simplify and crisp up your story. Too much information distracts. Focus on the core benefit that you will provide and structure a logical story flow around that one benefit.
  • Data is key, too much data is a problem. Don’t throw in all the data you have, present the data that is critical to enable smart decision making. If you add data that doesn’t support decision making you will only confuse and distract everyone. You will also demonstrate that you don’t know what you’re doing.

Increasing layers of detail and refinement.

  • Follow the Journalistic Pyramid. Your story must be clear and convincing in the first paragraph. Everything after that adds additional layers of detail and perspective. Try reading a newspaper article – if you read it top down you can stop at any point and you will get the most important information. If you read bottom up that won’t work. The most important information is at the top, additional supportive information is at the bottom. Structure your thinking and writing the same way.
  • Develop your story top down. Likewise get feedback on your story in that layered way. First establish alignment on the problem statement. Then come back and do the same on the bullet points of your solution approach. Finally, and only then, start writing narrative and FAQs. If you try to do all at the same time you will spend a LOT of time and energy in completely re-writing your doc several times.
  • What questions are asked in early reviews? Write them down, those are either things you need to fix in your PR, or they will serve as excellent questions for the FAQ.

Don’t waste the reviewer’s time.

  • Be clear about the state at which your thinking is. If you want to solidify the problem statement, be clear about that and ONLY bring the problem statement. Once you need structural feedback, bring bullet points, not the narrative. When those are ready, only then start writing narrative. It’s super frustrating to review narrative, if you’re not even sure you understand and agree with the problem that is to be solved. Set proper expectations for everyone in the room (including yourself) or everyone will be frustrated! Don’t bring a narrative if you’re not yet clear on the problem statement or structure – it simply doesn’t work.
  • Implement the feedback!! Nothing is frustrating me more than if I spend 30-60 mins to give thoughtful feedback on a document, only to see that it was ignored in the next version. At points I played with the thought of just leaving a review meeting when I see that – I think in the future I will. If you ask for feedback, you MUST work on it. If you don’t want feedback, don’t ask for it and don’t waste people’s time (good luck though with that approach, you better be extra-smart).

Think big, think backwards!

  • Don’t think forward, don’t think incrementally. That is the hardest one, but it’s also what makes Amazon what it is. We all are trained to think forward and incrementally by the previous jobs and companies we worked in. We know what we have, and we think what we can add to it in order to make it better. Don’t! Free yourself from what you have, and think about where you want to be with your product in 3 years. If you would be starting from a green field, what would you build? Don’t think about how you can make your car float if you actually need to buy a boat. It’s hard, but this is the key to being successful at Amazon and in your career.
  • Gather data, then form an opinion. Get lots of inputs, data and opinions from stakeholders, partners and users. Listen to their thoughts, reflect upon them, let them influence your opinion. Then lock down and go do. Don’t try to write a document that makes everyone happy, write a document that YOU think is right and addresses the most important problems and points. Identify the point in the process at which your opinion counts the most – it’s your document and idea – and everyone else only has inputs. Identify the point where brainstorming and seeking alignment ends, and you start owning a document, setting a bold vision and leading change.

Writing PR FAQs is a muscle.

  • Like any muscle, it needs to be exercised to be developed. Write early, write often. Write documents that you only review with your peers or your manager. You don’t want the first document that you ever write be one that goes straight to a VP or SVP (unless you love to be in a world of pain).
  • It’s not about the document, it’s about the thinking. We don’t write PR FAQs to produce pretty papers. We don’t review to show people how smart we as reviewers are. We do both to REFINE IDEAS. PR FAQs help us to explain an idea and then bring the best minds together to poke, polish and refine. Any given idea gets better through the review and debate process. It’s painful at times, but it’s always worth it.

Good luck and enjoy the intellectual challenge!


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.

Ownership

One of the things that define how Amazon runs its business is what they call the Leadership principles. These principles are treated like religion. They define daily business processes, project priorties, how decisions are made, and apparently, they work really well for the company’s success. Those leadership principles are also widely regarded as operational blueprints for many startups. Over my time with Amazon, I learned to love some of them, see the value in others, and realize that a critical one was missing (I’ll tell you that secret over a beer if you’re interested).

Since those Leadership principles are universally applicable and useful, I will pick a specific one every now and then and share its official description as well as my personal take and experience. As always, I would love your thoughts, feedback, and differing point of view.

Ownership

Ownership

Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job.”

To me, ownership is probably the most important one of the leadership principles. It is so important because it defines how we approach our jobs. Are we just in to tick off hours and collect a paycheck, or do we deeply care about what we’re doing and want to positively impact our field, our customers, and our co-workers?

For that reason, in my mind, ownership is also closely linked to the three pillars that drive job satisfaction (purpose, autonomy, and mastery). If we don’t step up and take personal ownership, we will not feel any control over these three pillars either.

Ownership means caring about what we do. Ownership means not waiting to be told what we should focus on but proactively assessing our space all the time and moving forward with the things that matter most. Ownership is the difference between looking at the clock ticking away versus looking at your customers and thinking through how you can improve their lives.

Ownership is also about being in control, which again, is one of the key drivers for job satisfaction as well as one of the key things that cause burnout if it’s lacking. If you don’t show ownership and take control, someone else will fill the void for you and tell you what to do.

Always remember:

Ownership is taken, not granted!


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.

Think like Amazon

A while ago I was asked “how Amazon thinks and is different”. There are many books written on this topic, but if you want the Cliff notes, here’s my take:

How Amazon ticks (at least a small set of those principles)

A lot of the operating principles for Amazon are coded in the leadership principles, which everyone lives by on a daily basis. You will notice that there is often a tension between two leadership principles, which is intentional, as it forces everyone to consistently make conscious trade-off decisions.

Aligned goals while preserving autonomy

Hierarchy of goals – Amazon follows and tracks a hierarchy of goals. Some of those goals are set top-down, but the majority are aggregated bottoms-up. All goals are focused on the outcome, not the method, allowing for ample degrees of freedom to adjust process and solutions, as the team learns more about what works and what doesn’t. Aligning those goals up the chain ensures that everyone agrees on the priorities, and teams are given a framework to make an autonomous decision. There are several categories of importance for goals (company, department, team) to empower teams to make local decisions if some of those goals start to conflict with each other (e.g. one goal needs additional funding at the expense of another one).

Local autonomy – With a clear decision and priority framework through agreed-upon goals, teams are granted high local decision authority. That authority typically lies at the scope of two-pizza-teams, meaning teams that are small enough so that they can be fed with two pizzas in a meeting (i.e. no more than 10-12 people). Those units design their programs such that they can exist with minimal dependencies on other teams. Authority for most decisions lies with the leader of that team (typically a Manager or Senior Manager).

With that, Amazon, in many ways, functions like a group of many independent startups that work towards common goals with high independence and are well funded.

Starting small and embracing failure

Embracing experimentation and failure – Experimentation and failure is highly encouraged. There is a lot of deep thinking done in advance, and decisions are made based on extensive data analysis. However, there is also an understanding that all data is incomplete, and analysis-paralysis needs to be avoided. One-way versus two-way doors is a mental framework that helps navigate through that ambiguity. There is a high willingness in management to write off failures if the initial thinking was valid and data-driven. Experimentation in small pilots is the standard procedure to avoid costly mistakes at large scale. Teams meet on a weekly basis for project reviews where they look at all operational data to make quick course corrections if needed.

Start frugal, start scrappy – Contrary to public perception, every idea and implementation begins in a very scrappy and frugal way. That minimizes losses for ideas that don’t work. Once an idea is successful and gains traction, systems often have to be completely re-written in order to become more scalable and manageable and meet the larger scale and operational demand. This approach ensures extremely high agility and velocity at a very low initial cost (two pizza teams). Substantial investments are only made once an idea has proven to be successful. The extra cost of re-engineering a system is a conscious trade-off that is being made to allow quick and cost-effective initial development.

It’s all about the customer experience!

Customer focus – The customer and value for the customer are truly always put first. That is not so much for altruistic reasons, but because Amazon focuses on the lifetime value of a customer. Short-term losses are acceptable if they lead to a stronger engagement with the customer, thus ensuring a higher lifetime value. Customers are an investment for the long run, and short-term losses are acceptable toward that goal.

Of course, there is way more to what makes Amazon tick, but the above – together with the leadership principles – are some of the principles that, in my mind, make the most difference.


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.