The Art & Science of Leading

Leadership BLOG


Breakthrough Strategy and Strategic Leaders

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The word strategic is an ambiguous term that often has different meanings to different people, yet frequently referenced as a skill desired in leaders.  When I hear an executive say that they or a team member needs to be more strategic, I ask what they mean and the responses can be quite varied.  Saying you want someone to be less tactical and to think big picture, does not go far enough in providing a clear understanding of the skill set being sought.

Great strategy is usually enabled when there is a clear organizational mission and vision that can guide innovative thinking.  A company that states their vision as “Being the Best” at something does not necessarily provide a clear path to innovative approaches, but vision statements such as “To build the Web’s most convenient, secure, cost-effective payment solution” or “To seamlessly connect riders to drivers through our apps” are better defined and help differentiate a company from the competition.

Many companies run on autopilot when it comes to strategy. They follow a planning process and turn to the same people for ideas or new approaches. Other companies have the luxury of having advisors from different backgrounds that provide fresh perspective.  Frequently, leaders become so busy running their companies or dealing with day-to-day operations that they have little time to think creatively or plan towards the future.

Setting aside time to think strategically is a start, but great ideas take time to germinate.   

Approach to Strategy

Organizations can be proactive or reactive when it comes to strategy. In the reactive mode, innovation is triggered by an event such as loss of major client or market share. When an organization is proactive and intentional about strategy, they often have a more formal approach to innovation where they dedicate people, time and resources.

Strategy can involve incremental innovation where small improvements are made to your company’s existing products, services or processes to improve efficiency or experience or it can involve disruptive innovation. 

Transforming your business model and the way you define or do business would be disruptive innovation.  It could be creating and monetizing new value propositions that attract a new population of customers or providing complete solutions instead of one product or service.

Breakthrough Strategy

Breakthrough strategy involves being able to take a broad, long-range approach to problem-solving or decision-making and foresee opportunities that lead to a competitive sustainable advantage, that create value.  In this case, strategic thinking focuses on finding and developing unique opportunities to create value, whether it is harnessing a new technology, a new business model, or a niche strategy. It involves being able to anticipate and adapt to a changing environment, to seize tomorrow’s opportunities today, to unlock value and help the business be more competitive.

Designing Strategy

Designing a strategy that creates competitive advantages is not always easy. Whether it is delivering products and services in a new way or developing a niche market, innovative strategy takes time.

Leaders who are seeking breakthrough thinking often have operating models within their organizations that encourage creative solution design such as design thinking, open innovation and idea incubation.  They question the status quo of their company and industry and get to the root of assumptions and beliefs about value creation.

Often game-changing information comes from looking for insights at the periphery of your industry or being exposed to different ideas and perspectives from outside your industry. Executive exchanges where you have an opportunity to meet with executives from different industries with different expertise can provide access to knowledge from a broad range of sources and inspiration where you least expect it.

Another approach for designing breakthrough strategy is to reframe beliefs or widely shared notions about customer preferences, the role of technology, regulation, cost drivers, differentiators, and competitors by exploring what supports these beliefs. 

Key to realizing breakthrough strategy is establishing an innovative culture, having the right talent, having the ability to take an innovation to market quickly and in a scalable way, finding the right partners with whom to collaborate, and identifying the right metrics for measuring progress.

Leadership Skills

Strategic leaders think ahead, while also taking into account lessons from the past.  They move fluidly between divergent and convergent thinking, understanding interdependencies between business activities while also being able to look at the organization and industry holistically and objectively.  They have both the visionary thinking to explore long-term possibilities and the pragmatic thinking that understands on the ground operations.

Armed with industry foresight, customer insights, an analysis of operational systems and interdependencies, strategic leaders synthesize information from many sources before developing a viewpoint.  They are able to elevate their thinking and apply judgment during analysis about how components fit together and with the bigger picture.

Delivering Strategy

Being strategic goes beyond designing strategy.  You also have to deliver it. To effectively deliver it, you need a communication plan that gains the support and influence of others.  Such a plan begins with understanding people’s concerns and risk tolerance.

When sharing information, strategic leaders foster open dialogue, build trust, and engage key stakeholders. They craft storylines that clearly articulate findings, insights and recommendations and communicate key trends across industries, segments and competitors. Strategy discussions should be well defined, clearly articulate the business choices, and lay-out talent and resource requirements.  Leaders also need to bring tough issues to the surface and take a stand when views diverge, even when information is incomplete.

Driving large-scale change is a balancing act that involves deciding how much energy and resources need to be spent between business-as-usual and executing on strategic objectives.  Certain areas of the business may be strained.  Identifying those challenge areas quickly and concentrating efforts on providing guidance where necessary will increase workforce alignment.  Additionally, regularly communicating the overarching objectives of large-scale change and how exactly each person’s goals contribute to the strategic objectives are tracked and reported, will create greater ownership of the change and lead to successful execution.

Thoughts?   Feel free to share your comments with me at