Freek Vermeulen (pictured right) has been an Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the London Business School for the past 15 years. Mostly of what he does is to study innovation inside large companies. Vermeulen has written an article for the Harvard Business Review, '5 Strategy Questions Every Leader Should Make Time For,' that has caught my attention recently.
In the piece the Professor claims, "We don’t have much time to think and reflect." Yet, he points out, "Thinking is in fact quite an important activity when it comes to assessing and developing a strategy."
This claim made quite an impression on me: in our busy working lives, are we prioritising action over reflection? If so, what are the consequences on our business results and productivity?
I wanted to explore this topic further with Vermeulen. In this interview he shares his view on strategic thinking, leadership competencies and the role of communication. Plus, he gives his best tips on how to be more mindful and deliberate when it comes to take your time to think.
Gloria Lombardi: Today many leaders, you suggest, are giving to much attention to action over thinking, which brings several negative consequences to the business. What is causing that?
Freek Vermeulen: There are several related reasons. The first one is that we are supposed to be always busy, especially in the corporate life. We are expected to keep ourselves occupied over time and work hard. It is almost as if the norm must be to not stay still. But, if you want to focus on long-term strategy and big picture, there are times when you must sit down, stay still, think and do nothing else.
Yet, there is a strange, awkward and sometimes unproductive rule in many companies – you are not supposed to just sit down and think on your desk. If you do that, most probably people would think you are lazy and will tell you to go back to work and do something.
Secondly, it is also very easy - especially for people in leadership positions - to be overwhelmed by a lot of things to do, meetings to attend, contacts to keep across different geographical locations. And of course, all this everyday demand also takes over the time for thinking.
Gloria Lombardi: How can this pattern be interrupted? What can leaders do to regain control over their thinking?
FV: As a leader, you have to very deliberately make the time and say, 'I am not going to make this everyday patterns take over'. I myself learned the hard way, and I am an academic! Today, I place two consecutive days per week where I deliberately decide not to attend meetings, lectures and accept visits from students – I just sit on my desk, write and think. That is very necessary to me, and it is necessary in every corporate job too.
So, my first advice is to become very conscious about it, and deliberately set some time to think. Also, you have to discipline yourself and make rules.
Many corporations do our annual strategy re-treats once per year with the senior team; they take some days out and go somewhere to think about strategy. But, research shows that those activities are much more productive when each single individual has though carefully by themselves beforehand. Those meetings with multiple people will become much more productive. So, the individual thinking activity is as important as the group meetings.
GL: What practical steps can be taken to make thinking more of a practice?
FV: There are a broad range of exercises and frameworks that can help leaders. But those tools work unless they do not become too mechanical. For example, there are the five questions that I wrote about in the HBR article, which you cannot really answer in half an hour. It is not a 'tick all the boxes' exercise; and it is pretty useless if you take it that way.
Also, worth mentioning is the work from Psychologist Daniel Kahneman who talks about several exercises that you can do such us trying to picture yourself by looking back rather than looking forward.
If you use those types of frameworks intentionally as a guide, they may help you structure your thoughts and force you to look beyond the short term, towards the bigger picture. Ultimately, that is by definition what leaders or anyone in charge of strategy is supposed to do - to think long term.
GL: Can technology help in all of this? In fact, is technology an ally or enemy (or both)?
FV: It depends on what we mean by technology and what we do with it. We can actually take a piece of paper and think of it as a type of technology that can help us to structure our thinking. In fact, sometimes a piece of paper and a pencil can be far more effective than the latest tools. Bill Gates, for example, would not use technology for thinking – initially, he would just sit, and read and nothing else.
The online technology that promises to give us all the answers and data we need, sometimes it is almost counter-productive. It sends you some sort of results; but it actually keeps you busy again and away from thinking through deeply.
Now, of course there are many different pieces of technologies that could help you structure your thoughts. As long as the tool does not become an excuse for doing things that prevent your thinking, perhaps it can help.
GL: Some contemporary literature suggests leaders not just creating the vision alone and then communicating it to the business; but rather involving employee in setting the company strategy and co-create the future of the organisation. Can this approach marry with the solo thinking we discussed above?
FV: Let me give you a very academic answer to that: yes and no. It is very much the responsibility of the leader to set the broad strategic direction of the company. That is the starting point. I have never seen a very successful company where the leader did not have a very clear, yet broad vision in mind. In a way I think that it is a top-down process. But that does not mean detailing what everyone should do for the next five years.
I certainly see many successful companies letting other people contribute to the organisational strategy. It can take many forms depending on the particular circumstances of the business and also on which industry they are. So, top-down has to meet bottom-up. It is not an either or equation.
You have to set a clear strategic direction, but you also have to acknowledge that you cannot do it all alone. You need to create the circumstances for other people in the organisation to contribute.
GL: What other key competences and skills today leaders need to have?
FV: Relating back to setting the strategy, leaders don't have to be afraid of making choices. Sometimes, I notice that they make choices too early and too quickly. Yet, there are circumstances when you have to be patient, and just wait and see – don't force yourself to make choices that may be too premature. Posing and resting before taking an initiative is a quality, which does not always comes at easy.
Another good characteristic of a leader is to know what choices they should not make and when they should enable others to make the best possible decisions. They have to be able to see where they are not supposed to make decisions. At some levels they need the ability to say ‘I have now set the strategic boundaries; but there are certain choices which other intelligent people within the company have to make.’
GL: How do you see the role of communication when it comes to leadership to find the time to think?
FV: Communication should be part of the strategy. If you set the strategic goals, the only thing you can do to make them work is to communicate them effectively. Implementation and communication are intertwined. They are two sides of the same coin. They go hand on hand. You can have a wonderful strategy on your Power Point presentation or piece of paper, but if you are not able to communicate it well, people will not be able to make it happen. Ultimately, you have no strategy at all.