Get on the balcony

Guest editorial
Elise Mitchell
Three-time CEO, executive coach and leadership strategist

This article was published in the June 2020 edition of NTEA News.

The marketplace was crowded, bustling with pedestrians, street vendors and tuk-tuks. My husband and I were trying our best to navigate the chaos of a typical Indian street scene, but our heads were spinning.

Thankfully, our guide came to the rescue, taking us to a stairwell that led up and out of the crowds. Several flights later, we emerged onto a balcony with a sweeping view of the entire city. We could see for miles. Suddenly everything made sense. From our elevated vantage point, what had once seemed chaotic now seemed clear.

I’ve felt this same way many times as a leader, and I’m sure you have, too. When you see broadly, you can understand the true nature of things. This idea is captured beautifully in the get-on-the-balcony principle of adaptive leadership, which is a practical approach to leading through change.

Just as the city made sense to us from several stories up, business leaders must know when and how to rise above the chaos of day-to-day activities so they can make sound, strategic decisions. Standing in the swirl of meetings and phone calls all day never allows you to see the bigger picture. And if you can’t see the bigger picture, you can’t effectively manage it.

Following are three ways to sort through organizational chaos and enhance strategic thinking skills, especially in times of change.

Get a guide
As a leader, sometimes you’re too much in the thick of things. You might be suffering from information overload or are so focused on your own perspective, you struggle to consider other viewpoints.

At times like this, you need someone capable of — and comfortable with — taking you by the arm and escorting you up and out of the swirl. I can think of several mentors and colleagues who have shared different points of view and appropriately pushed back on my ideas. As a result, they helped me hone my strategic thinking skills and make better decisions.

Take a moment and ask yourself

  • Who is my guide?
  • Have I given him/her permission to challenge me when I need it?

If you don’t have a good answer for both questions, reach out to someone you trust and respect, and ask them to guide/challenge you.

Know what to look for
Once you’re on the balcony, you’ll begin to see lots of things — marketplace shifts, developing trends and emerging threats, to name a few.

But having the wrong information — or too much detail — isn’t useful. You must discipline yourself to focus only on what you need to know to accomplish the task at hand.

Looking broadly across your organization and operating environment, think of the most pressing challenges you need to tackle. Then ask yourself five questions.

  1. How is our reality changing?
  2. What can’t we control?
  3. What can we control?
  4. What do we want to achieve?
  5. How does our strategy need to change?

By asking the right questions, you’ll begin to see patterns. You’ll develop ideas, and your strategy will become clearer. Think of this as sensemaking, which is one of the hallmarks of effective leaders.

Translate ideas into action
But it’s not just about strategy. Leaders play a crucial role in helping their team understand how to take action. So not only do you ask, “So what?”, you also ask, “Now what?”.

This is when you shift your focus from broad to narrow. As you make sense of the environment, you and your team can develop a detailed plan for seizing opportunity. There are many factors to consider.

  • Structure, processes and systems — How do these need to be changed?
  • Team strengths — What skills or expertise need to be added?
  • Current priorities — What projects can shift to the backburner?
  • Delivery timeline — How will you leverage opportunities to increase velocity?
  • Buy-in — How will you gain support for necessary changes?
  • Measurement — What yardstick will you use to determine progress?
  • Accountability — How will you create ownership throughout the team?

The enemies of sound strategic thinking are found in the chaos that keeps you stuck in the swirl of your day-to-day. Get on the balcony to see more clearly.

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