Interpretation: Third Habit of Strategic Thinkers

If you have been following the first two blogs in this series, you have considered how to anticipate the forces impacting the industry and your firm.  You have also given critical thought to how those forces may unfold, and how you should best react to them.  Yet if you have not come to a conclusion at this stage about what it all means or how all these things will impact you, don’t worry; it’s still too early! Considered appropriately, anticipation and critical thinking will introduce ambiguity brought on by divergent information. To move forward, you need to engage in a third strategic habit. Now it is time for interpretation.

Strategic Habit #3

Paul Schoemaker at the Wharton School says: “A good, strategic leader holds steady, synthesizing information from many sources before developing a viewpoint. To get good at this, you have to:

  • Seek patterns in multiple sources of data
  • Encourage others to do the same
  • Question prevailing assumptions and test multiple hypotheses simultaneously”

A tendency during an information-gathering phase is to reject anything that runs counter to your assumptions about what you think is important, or anything that points to a different direction from where you want to head. This is confirmation bias in action! Gathering a broad set of information and then scouring the data for all its inherent connections, trends, and patterns is a crucial step towards successful decision making.  You must be able to take this step to appropriately interpret what you learn and apply it to your business. This process works best when your entire team – both your in-house leadership team and your advisory group or hive mind – takes a broad-based approach as well. 

Interpretation requires clear and open communication flow, conducted in a safe environment. To do this work well, the culture of your firm needs to be one that supports dialogue, a culture in which everyone feels comfortable saying what is on their mind without worrying about being thought of differently, or being put in a box, or being marginalized, or…worse. Welcome to the world of vigorous discussion! Strong leaders do not feel threatened by peers or employees who passionately bring new ideas and news to the table which they themselves did not see. Rather, great leaders appreciate that they have extra eyes and ears on board, and they make sure that these team members are all working in the best interest of the organization. 

Foundational Elements

Know that simply saying you encourage clear and open communication and saying that the firm is a safe environment for divergent thought is not the same as actually creating a clear, open, and intellectually safe organization. You may need to first confront your own biases and assumptions before you are able to create the atmosphere in which you can effectively enter the interpretation stage with your larger team. 

When your firm is ready, embed interpretation into your business meetings. During your team and leadership meetings, encourage everyone to share what they see/hear and what they think it may mean. Have a standing agenda item which everyone is asked to contribute–to bring their best observations, their sources, and their opinions to the table. Then use the diversity of the team’s perspective to interpret what the findings may mean for your business. It may be helpful to engage an outside facilitator to run the meetings to ensure that your own preconceptions don’t get in the way of the discussion. 

Interpreting the analyses that you have made of your business, the industry, and the world will highlight the few things that are of greatest relevance to your firm. The next step will be to then decide what you will devote your limited time, attention, energy, and money to. Deciding is the fourth strategic habit in our series, and it will be the topic of our next blog. 

Tell us your thoughts about interpretation: What do you do to challenge your assumptions and check your own biases? How does (or perhaps doesn’t) your firm’s culture invite open communication and the sharing of disparate perspectives and opinions?  What questions do you have as you move towards engaging your entire team in a more interpretative and powerful work flow?

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