We’ve just begun a multi-part series exploring the most talked-about topic in leadership: strategic thinking. What makes a leader strategic? How can we help ourselves and the leaders we are responsible to develop become more and more strategic? What are the key principles of thinking strategically that can be fostered at all levels of leadership? To begin to answer these questions, we are going to take a trip to the bathroom. (Yes, you read that correctly.) It has long been joked that the bathroom is the birthplace of many a good idea. One look at Auguste Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker gives us ammunition to support that idea. (Is he sitting on a rock…or is that a toilet?) That said, it’s recent advancements in bathroom technology that give us examples of the first commitment of strategic thinkers. But before we get to those bathroom examples, let’s briefly review something from our last blog entry.
In the first blog in this series, we shared that the majority of the world’s practices in strategic thinking could be summarized by three critical actions. The first of those actions is Prioritize the Hunt for Better.
Prioritize the Hunt for Better Strategic leaders are agents of positive change. They not only have a bias towards continuous improvement and against the status quo, but they intentionally prioritize time and energy for themselves and others to discover improvements. They don’t allow themselves to look for just one kind of improvement; instead, they look for both incremental progress and monumental, game-changing paradigm shifts.
Let’s take a moment to focus on the latter part of that definition by exploring what we mean by “incremental progress."
Can You Please Point Me To the Incremental Progress Room?
The world is fond of arguing about which of its inventions is the greatest. Some say the wheel. Others say fire. Others look at more modern advancements such as the printing press or electricity. As for me and my life, one of the greatest inventions of all time is….(dramatic pause)…the curved shower curtain rod.
The curved shower curtain rod is a truly wonderful invention and all the more so when you consider how it achieves its wonders. It started showing up in hotel rooms about 15 years ago. Today it’s difficult to find a hotel room in the United States that still uses a straight shower curtain rod. Why? Because this small modification dramatically changes the experience of taking a shower. By simply adding a curve to the rod, the size of the shower feels like it increases by at least 50%. What’s amazing to consider is that a curved shower curtain rod actually changes the area within the shower by just 11%. (Yes, I’ve really done the math.)
Think about that efficiency: An 11% increase that feels like a +50% increase. The key is in where the rod creates the additional space. More than half of the new space that is created exists at eye-level and at our shoulders, which is where we most often bumped into the shower curtain before the curved rod appeared on the scene. So even though it creates a relatively small overall increase in space within the shower, it feels dramatically large. Imagine if the curved shower curtain rod somehow created its new space from our calves down to the floor. That increase would be virtually undetectable; that 11% increase would feel like 0%. Where the incremental improvement happens matters…a lot. This incremental improvement is strategic to be sure.
I ran across another incremental bathroom improvement not so long ago in a Fairfield Inn and Suites in Columbus, Ohio. Take a look at the photo I snapped of the shower in my hotel room. Notice anything unique about it?
That’s right, the handle that turns the water on is not under the shower head as is normally the case. This small improvement meant that I didn’t have to make a physical maneuver worthy of a Cirque du Soleil show to avoid the burst of cold water that jumps out when the shower is first turned on. This incremental improvement not only makes turning the shower on less troublesome, but it also reduces the hotel's risk of being hit with a slip and fall law suit. (Not that I would sue a hotel for my inability to stand up, but some people do.)
Time for the Take Away
So what’s the key lesson for leaders who want to be more strategic in their thinking? Very simply, we must make time to think about incremental progress. Are we intentionally setting aside time and energy to identify the small improvements that would make our products, processes, and organizations just a little bit better? Are we inviting others who follow us to do the same? Do we regularly have meetings or time alone in our offices exclusively for the purpose of identifying incremental progress?
There is a bit of a myth about thinking strategically that says that you either have it or you don’t. Either you’re smart enough to figure out new stuff or you aren’t. But is it fair to judge our abilities to think strategically if we never actually allocate time to do so? Another leadership myth suggests that leaders are the one’s who have all the answers and come up with all the ideas. This myth plays off of the erroneous philosophy that says leadership is about the leader. Leadership is actually about followers and the space we create for them to do their best. A simple way to simultaneously be strategic and overcome these myths is to create intentional opportunities for ourselves and those we lead to search for incremental improvements.
Simple as it may seem, proactively and consistently pausing to think How can we make this just a little bit better? is the stuff of strategic thinking. Less effective leaders don’t create time for themselves or their teams to consider incremental progress…at least no more time than what they already spend in the bathroom.
Share Your Thoughts: Have you ever worked for a leader who proactively and consistently prioritized time to look for incremental progress? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation by clicking here.Click here to receive free postings from Tim Spiker and The Aperio. As a thank you, you'll receive the first two chapters of The Only Leaders Worth Following: Why Some Leaders Succeed, Others Fail, and How the Quality of Our Lives Hangs in the Balance.