You empower yourself and create world-changing impact
when you learn to think strategically. It’s better to craft
strategy that is powerful, clever, and effective
rather than strategy that is weak, stupid, and ineffective.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Githens, the author of How to Think Strategically. Greg’s big idea in this book is that thinking is an individual competency that provides positive impact on one’s organization and career. A strategic thinker is a sharp-minded person who understands the reality of their situation and then crafts a clever, powerful, and effective response. The advice in this book help the reader gain a reputation (personal brand) for excellence.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
Prior to becoming a consultant and coach, I was a business-development executive. I spent countless hours leading proposal capture teams and I’m proud to say that we captured hundreds of millions of dollars of new business. I learned the value of paying close attention to the audience and anticipating their spoken and unspoken needs. I became adept in creating a narrative composed of story themes and evidence-backed claims.
The same principles hold true for being an effective author: your success is tied to your ability to develop empathy for the audience’s reality. Further, you have to offer them an innovation that they can grasp, and you have to support them on their journey.
I’ve always had a desire to help others — individually and organizationally — make an impact. Although the word strategy is sometimes only a buzzword, there is no other word that describes captures the inter-relationship of aspirations, resources, and methods. If you want to have impact, you must understand and contribute to strategy.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
A global manufacturer of eyeglass lens had a breakthrough product technology. The executive team challenged its product developers to integrate this next-generation technology into its product. Success would put the company in a position of global leadership in its industry.
The company asked me to work with the product development team to identify and overcome the many obstacles and risks. In the team’s first meeting, I discovered that most members had little experience with high-stakes innovations. Many of their comfort zones were quite small. They needed to lean into the strategic opportunity. Recognizing that they could get stuck in tactical problem solving, I listed three questions and challenged them to address them before the completion of the meeting. The questions were: What do we know? What don’t we know? How do we find out what we don’t know?
The “what-do-we-know” was rather straightforward and served to get the group level-set on the basic facts and objectives of the project.
The team needed some support for admitting “what-don’t-we-know.” My facilitation process was to have each individual, one at a time, to identify an issue or major question. I scribed their words onto a flip chart. We went around the room several times until the group felt confident that most of the strategic challenges had been identified. The feedback was, “We’ve accomplished more in these last 2 hours than we normally do in a full day meeting.”
The key learning that resonates most when tell this anecdote is this: It’s more important to talk about what you don’t know than what you do know.
Ambiguity and anxiety are inherent to strategy. People get anxious when they don’t know something, so they tend to make assumptions rather than investigate. Those who ask better questions are more suited to strategic thinking. As I write in my book, “Better strategy can be generated if answers are found to quality questions, rather than quality solutions found for poorly posed questions.”
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was making a presentation to a group of two dozen managers at HSBC, the global financial services company.
A few minutes into my remarks, I was interrupted by one of the managers who wanted to alert me to my twice-made mistake. “Our name is HSBC not HBSC.” Of course, I was embarrassed and apologized. Coming to my rescue, another manager offered this advice, “You’re not the first to transpose those letters.” She continued, “Here’s how I remember it, ‘Holy S#!t. The British are Coming.’ ” A round of laughter ensued and it became clear that my transgression was just a human mistake. Their laughter was more than a consoling my feelings. It was a signal that the audience could relax and become more conversational. It was a big step towards the collaboration needed to achieve their stretch goal.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
As you probably know, unfriendly foreign governments have made attempts to hack the elections infrastructure in the United States. I’m presently working with a company who’s a critical supplier of services and solutions to county governments. The company’s strong technology and services platforms gives it many advantages for growth, but it also needs to increase its investment in safe-guarding its reputation.
In working with the top team, I’ve helped them clarify their strategic issues and increase focus to their strategic initiatives. It has been able to get better alignment and traction on key drivers of success in both strategy and operations.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
I believe that my own skill at strategic thinking has been a big contributor to my effectiveness as writer.
I use the skill of empathy to understand what is important to the audience. I don’t simply rely on intuition, but I engage with questions to get feedback. I’m always alert for insights that give me an edge on how to best deliver value to them.
Here is an example. In a morning keynote speech to a professional group, I announced to the audience, “I’m here to get you promoted.” Several people told afterward that they were glad to hear a speaker state an obvious-but-underappreciated truth. It was later than I combined that insight with research on the value and rarity of strategic thinkers to construct my book’s big idea: strategic thinking is an individual competency that adds value to the organization.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
People find that the strategic thinking narrative of Christopher Columbus resonates because Columbus is significant historically and the outlines of his story are familiar. No one wants to doubt the presence of his sharp mind, curiosity, and persistence. What they learn is that an essential part of his success is that he had an insight about how to sail to the west and then return. He realized that the prevailing winds off the coast of Africa were from the East. He could travel with them to sail westward and then he would return to Europe by the familiar winds blowing from the West.
The point for everyone who wants to think strategically is to search for insights and organize your resources to test and refine that insight. An insight is a sudden realization of a better story (for Columbus, it was sail South and then sail West) contrasted with a mediocre story (to make the attempt to sail directly into the prevailing winds). Insight is the secret sauce of strategy.
Anyone can have a valuable insight and I explain the mechanism and suggest techniques to increase their quality, illustrating with a number of examples.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
Any person can — and should — practice strategic thinking. It enables them to make more futures-sensitive decisions about their own career and personal life. This is empowering.
Enlightened organizations can scale up and get more benefits by encouraging people to think strategically on behalf of their work units and on behalf of the enterprise. It’s really commonsense: everyone should pay attention to weak signals and escalate them for sense making. It’s not unlike the idea of everyone in the community being alert for signals of crime: see something, say something.
I see myself at the forefront of an empowerment movement. I call for ask organizations to recognize strategic thinking as an individual competency. My writing helps individuals make better choices, both as an agent of their organization and in their career.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a bestselling author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
My biggest challenge was during the design and writing was balancing insights from my own experience with vast, interconnected literature on strategy, judgment, and foresight.
Early on I felt a little stuck and overwhelmed. So, I put ideas on sticky notes and created a map that I labeled “The Map of Strategic Thinking.” I moved the stickies around and edited. Eventually that map became one of the highlights of the book, which was the distinction of a map of strategic thinking that contrasts with a map of operational thinking.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
I’m presently reading Doris Kearns Godwin’s wonderful book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, which profiles US Presidents Lincoln, Roosevelt, Roosevelt, and Johnson. Extra-ordinary leaders have the courage to break from conformity and expectations. A strategic thinker who does not practice leadership is an analyst, and a leader who does not think strategically is a cheerleader for operational efficiency.
I believe that extra-ordinary leadership combined with good strategic thinking provides a powerful force for facing the many discontinuities and disruptions of the future.
How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?
Beyond providing useful applied information, I believe that I inspire my readers to orient towards excellence and courage.
Strategy isn’t simply a capitalist tool for creating wealth, it’s a specialized tool that organizations use to advance their interests. And the world has many challenges: climate, injustice, etc.
What advice would you give to someone considering becoming an author like you?
Any publisher wants you to have a platform. That means that are known and knowable. You have to speak to audiences, be a thought leader with a well-articulated perspective, and effectively use social media.
In other words, you have to have a personal brand that reinforces and complements the theme of your book.
Develop your own perspective. Perspective is defined as personality plus point of view. Reflect on your temperament and experiences. Try to develop your own personal brand and point of view.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1.Have a big idea for your book. A big idea is a simple concept that reframes the reader’s understanding of the world and how it works. A book with a big idea sparks an important insight.
My big idea for How to Think Strategically is that strategic thinking is an individual competency. Despite the thousands of titles about strategy, this idea is unique.
I’ve found that this big idea resonates with individuals everywhere and offers a mechanism for empowerment and excellence to organizations.
I learned the importance of a big idea the hard way. A few years ago, I was excited about an idea of a book explain strategic initiatives and their leadership. No publisher stepped forward to support the idea. I didn’t have a big idea, just set of nuggets. I great book has a coherent theme, and I think I got it right with How to Think Strategically.
2.The job of a non-fiction author is to be a curator of content. It’s no secret that audiences are information overloaded. I always liked the saying that, “Any fool can add, it takes a genius to subtract.” The author’s job is to help the audience know what is important to know.
As I pondered this curator role, I found myself being guided by this maxim: Be a curator of excellence.Mediocrity is all around us. Excellence is rare and is found in the rare, exceptional, and brilliant. Ultimately, society benefits if we can sharpen the distinction of what is excellent and what is mediocre in every aspect of our lives.
3.Use design thinking to sculpt thereader’s experience. The idea of a user experience is popular in design thinking circles these days. Imagine several of your typical readers Where and when will they read your book? Will they be interrupted while reading? Does the book ask them to refer back to concepts introduced earlier? Each of these questions affect the experience of the reader. A reader who has a good experience is more likely to leave favorable feedback on your book and is more likely to recommend it to others. A reader who has a good experience is more likely to experience meaningful learning.
Many people are surprised to find that design thinking is a complement to strategic thinking. A strategist is one who recognizes the situation who can influence the configuration of the organizations resources to fit the environment.
4.Find the hidden narrative in familiar stories. I earlier mentioned the strategic thinking narrative of Christopher Columbus as an example of a hidden strategic thinking narrative.
I wrote about another example. It was based on the best-selling book Moneyball by Michael Lewis as well as the blockbuster movie with the same name. In it, I find the story of a strategic thinker (Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland A’s) who identified a discontinuity in his business environment and responded with a clever configuration of his resources. His success wasn’t luck or magic. He was a sharp-minded individual who had an insight that lead to a clever strategy.
Some of the lessons of this strategic thinking narrative is about the value of being skeptical of orthodoxy, the value of experimentation, and the courage to be different from others.
Here you can apply the archetype of the Hero’s Journey. That is, the hero leaves the ordinary world to enter a special world where she is test. She returns back to the ordinary world with elixir that benefits the ordinary world.
5.Test your messages before live audiences. I once attended a show by George Carlin, the famous comedian. In the middle of his routine he pulled out some papers with new jokes written on them and read his jokes to the audience. Some jokes were good, some not so much.
The lesson is that a live audience can give you useful feedback on what works and what doesn’t. There are many instances in my book where the content was directly shaped by feedback from presenting the concept to a live audience.
As an example, one of the top concepts of my book is that there are four X-factors of strategy: Drive, Insight, Chance, and Emergence. One member of my audience pointed out that they made a clever acronym: DICE.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Organizations that are committed to excellence are enhancing a set of skills: more collaboration, more personal leadership, more proactiveness, and more empowerment of talented individuals. Competent individual strategic thinking is a powerful catalyst for those outcomes.
Businesses and non-profits everywhere are finding that the external environment is getting more turbulent. Competition is increasing and you can only win if you have a strategy that is powerful, effective, clever, and nuanced.
There is a blunt truth that people need to hear: There is too much bad strategy and not enough good. Let’s contrast the ideal of good strategy with the too-common profile of mediocre organizations: strategy that is weak, ineffective, stupid, and generic. A cadre of competent strategic thinkers increases the probability that the organization crafts good strategy and avoids bad strategy.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I post frequently to Twitter: @GregGithens. I share inspiring quotes, thought-provoking articles, and my own musings about strategic thinking and extra-ordinary leadership.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.