7 Ways to Make Time for Strategic Thinking When You Don’t Have Time
As a strategic planning facilitator and board member, I have talked to many harried non-profit executives and board presidents who have said they simply can’t seem to make time for strategic planning. They don’t have the time to dedicate to it.
This isn’t to say that they don’t recognize the value of setting aside time to think strategically. After my post on game-changing macro trends, several people commented that they know it is important to spend time thinking about such issues. In many cases, some form of strategic thinking is a regular guest on their weekly to do list. Unfortunately, it always seems to give way to more immediate demands.
After promising to come up with a list of ways to help executives make time for strategic thinking, I realized that setting aside the required time is much like making time for exercise. It’s critical to our long-term health, and yet it’s all too easy to put off when we’re busy.
So, what can we learn from exercise best practices about how to make time for strategic thinking when you don’t have time?
1. Put It on Your Calendar
Exercise gurus tell us to put our daily workout on the calendar. Use the same strategy to make time for strategic thinking. Add a one hour block of time to your calendar and treat it as you would any other important appointment. For best results, make it the first thing you do each day, before you check email or voicemail messages.
Of course, making time on a daily basis isn’t the only way to make time for strategic thinking. Some leaders prefer other blocks of time. Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, takes two week-long retreats each year, hiding away in a quiet location to sit and think. Brian Scudamore, CEO of O2E Brands, blocks off each Monday as his day of strategic thinking.
2. Sneak It into Your Day
If you really have no time to exercise, trainers suggest sneaking small periods of exercise into downtime in your day. For example, do squats while waiting for water to boil for tea. While strategic thinking typically takes more than a few minutes, we can still borrow this idea.
Make time for strategic thinking by taking a walk or spending time on the elliptical trainer without your iPod, giving your mind a chance to wander – and getting your exercise at the same time. Use your commute time to ponder a strategic question, listen to a book on CD that covers trends or issues affecting your organization, or catch up on podcasts (without headsets, of course!).
3. Find Inspiration
There are dozens of magazines dedicated to all forms of exercise. They often offer work-out plans to help improve your performance, or describe the benefits of increasing your exercise schedule. They are meant to excite interest and inspire the reader. There is a parallel in the exercise of strategic thinking.
Look for your strategic inspiration in professional or industry associations both within your sector and outside of it. Association conferences often feature speakers addressing trends in the profession. If you can’t attend the conference, you may then be able to find YouTube presentations or articles authored by the speakers to help inspire your thinking.
Pick up a book on a trend that will impact your organization. Not sure where to begin? Consider one on generational differences, like Unlocking Generational Codes by Anna Liotta, or Generations: The Challenge of a Lifetime for Your NonProfit, by Peter Brinckerhoff. After all, most changes are driven by peoples’ expectations, which change with each generation.
There are many resources online, as well. Look for blogs by futurists, people who work in your sector, or management consultants (like me) who cover strategic topics.
“If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes solving it.” – attributed to Albert Einstein
4. Ramp Up Intensity
High-intensity interval training produces results with a lesser time commitment than a lower-intensity exercise approach like walking. Similarly, you will get more out of your strategic thinking if you concentrate exclusively on strategic thinking. Move yourself out of the way of possible distractions. Silence your phone. Put a “do not disturb” sign on your office door. Get out of the office for a walk, a cup of coffee at a quiet coffee shop, or an undisturbed moment on a bench in a park. Make your limited time count.
5. Work out with a Friend
Working out with a friend increases accountability and often encourages us to push ourselves harder. Strategic thinking also improves when others are involved. Adding additional minds allows participants to build on the ideas of others, generating new ideas more quickly.
Involve others by setting aside time for a broader team to participate in the planning process. In an organization with paid staff, this may include retreat time for the entire staff, the management team, the executive team, and/or members of the board. In an all-volunteer organization, use thought topics during board meetings and periodic retreats to examine trends and other strategic issues.
You can also make time for strategic thinking outside of your organization. Some organizations have informal strategic thinking retreats on a periodic basis with other organizations of a similar size or in the same sector. These can be facilitated by a third party or by members of the group on a rotating basis.
6. Join a Club
Joining a health club offers struggling exercisers three motivations to make time for exercise. First, the equipment is there and ready to go. Second, some will find the social aspect of exercise appealing. Third, most people will feel guilty about not going to a gym when they are paying for it every month.
If you want to make time for strategic planning, joining other types of clubs offers similar benefits. For example, joining a CEO roundtable offers peer encouragement and accountability, a facilitator who brings ideas and speakers to the table, and the attendance inducement of a financial commitment.
Joining a civic organization, such as Rotary, offers to the chance to connect with others outside your sector, learn about trends across industries, and become inspired by speakers at meetings.
7. Hire a Trainer
If you are really trying to turn your exercise habits around, you can hire a trainer to help. Using an expert helps hold you accountable, gives you access to knowledgeable counsel, and has that same financial obligation that many find motivating. This same approach works well for strategic planning.
You can hire an executive coach to help guide you through the process, prompt discussions, and hold you accountable. You can also hire a facilitator to help your organization work through strategic thinking in preparation for strategic planning. S/he may also be able to help you develop a culture that appreciates and encourages setting time aside to think strategically on a routine basis.
You might also consider hiring a Chief Strategy Officer or a Chief Revenue Officer, either on a short-term contract basis or as a full-time employee. This individual is responsible for monitoring trends and the competitive environment, keeping the executive team up to speed on issues impacting the organization, managing strategic planning processes, and holding the team accountable. In many respects, this individual functions in much the same way an external consultant might, but is a committed member of the non-profit’s executive team.
If you are looking for a Chief Strategy Officer, Chief Revenue Officer, coach, or facilitator for a non-profit organization hoping to improve its strategic thinking, please reach out to me. I would be happy to help you with your search.
Have you successfully added more strategic thinking to your schedule? Please help other non-profits figure out how to do so by adding a comment to this article.
If you like what I’ve written, please consider sharing it with friends – and be sure to subscribe to my e-newsletter. I’ll send you a monthly summary of article I write that will improve your organization’s ability to effectively plan for the future.