Finding time for big picture thinking

18 Sep 2020

Finding time for big picture thinking

In my last job not so long ago, I was managing marketing for a Tech marketplace and time was a scarce commodity. I always found myself juggling between meetings, events, deadlines, completing proposals, turning in status reports and project reports and was barely able to ‘think’. I had thought to myself several times, would it be easy if I had 4 hours extra every day.

Now, some years hence, in my own enterprise, I am in control of almost every thing I do, and how I do it. And have thought about my past life and I have identified several mistakes that I had done that kept me ‘busy’. Having 4 hours extra each day would not have made any change. But, It need not have been that way.

Today, as a Coach, I coach teams to achieve their potential by adopting mindsets that will set them up for organizational and personal success. I work with future leaders to enable them to  create impact in all spheres of their work and life.  And with experience, I have gathered insights that I wish I had several years ago.

Most working professionals are busy managing day to day work. Quiet like how it used to be with me, they are swamped with management related work and believe that they are fulfilling the role of a leader. But leadership is different from management.

Leadership requires that the individual focuses on the following aspects specifically

  1. Being proactive: Diagonize and solve problems before they become a crisis
  2. Have big picture focus: Focus on strategic thinking and connect the dots to ensure the organization is able to meet the future demands and deal with competition
  3. Communicate the vision: Give directions to the next level leadership and influence them so that they are able to execute the organizational goals and vision

A new leader or a first time leader believes that he or she can become a successful leader by doing more of what they have been doing successfully in their previous individual contributor roles. Hence, they fill their day with more and more of what they were doing before, not realizing that the expectation from them has changed.

This leads to the question – How to make time for strategic thinking? How to carve out time from an already busy schedule.  Here are my thoughts on what one can do differently in order to create time for strategic thinking.

1. Understand your new role as a leader, understand what’s different now: All newly appointed team leaders must take some time to understand how their new team lead role is different compared to what they were doing as individual contributors. The new responsibility includes managing a team and taking care of the needs and the career aspirations of the team members, apart from delivering on the departmental objectives. Leadership roles are not about managing daily run rate activities that are part of a 100 item to-do list. It is about being proactive and managing initiatives that have a long term business impact. Hence, there is a need to shift gears from managing tactical activities to spearheading long term strategic initiatives that align with the organizations goals and vison. This comes from thinking differently compared to before and developing new mindsets and habits.

2. Have a hard look at what constitutes your work day: If you examined how you spent your time thorough out your day, you will find all the different things that you do – external meetings, internal meetings with other stake holders, team/staff meetings, review meetings, team mentoring sessions, review sessions etc, and then you will find large chunks of time where you are doing the actual work – planning, organizing, working on a strategy or solving a problem. If you know how much time you spend working by yourself and how much you spend collaborating with others, it will give you insights into what adjustments you need to make – if you need to. It’s likely that your work day is skewed towards certain activities and may be you want to adjust that.

3. Evaluate your policies and processes and how you take decisions– It’s important to review the policies and processes that you adhere to at work – be it approval process, escalation process or making proposals for changes, proposals for new product or product upgrades etc. If you looked at these processes, you will realise that there may be scope for process improvements, scope to reduce time, scope to cut red tape, scope to empower your team members to reduce time to decision etc. When the processes were set, may be you had a new team where you din’t know there strengths and weaknesses or may be your team was comprised of less experienced staff. Now, the circumstances may be different. As the team has more experience now, may be it’s possible to empower them a little more, and hence some of the policies and processes can be changed, therefore saving time. Also, with this exercise you may be able to identify problems before hand and fix them much before they turn into a crisis.

4. Examine why you opt to do things in a particular way: All leaders have their work falling into 4 to 5 broad categories. Even under each category, there could be big chunks of work that are part of the KPIs that you work on. Look at each of these items and see if they really belong with you. You may find big chunks of routine work which you can comfortably delegate to a member on your team. To that person it may be additional responsibility that they will be happy to accept. There could be big chunks of work that’s not your work at all, or may be its work in an area where you do not want to build capabilities, as it does not align with your long term objectives. You need to handover that work to a department where it rightfully belongs.

If you examine this way, you may discover some of your weaknesses. You may have been holding on to some lower level work which you have outgrown. This may be because you were unwilling to delegate it to some one else, you may too attached to give it up. There may be instances where you find yourself getting involved in work or accepting work that is not your responsibility. This may be because of your inability to say NO or may be you wish to have control in those areas which are outside your scope of responsibility. There may be some KRAs and KPIs that ought to be your responsibility, but you never got to accepting them.

5. Free up time: If you have a hard look at what constitutes your work, evaluate the policies and processes that are in place and update them and understand your motivations for what’s on your plate and made the necessary changes (like delegate or totally drop), you can free up some time for strategic thinking. This means that you have streamlined all the work, got rid of non-core work, made clear boundaries on what is your work and what isn’t. This effort might take a few months, but at the end of it, you will be thankful to yourself for having embarked on the mission to focus on work that makes you ‘work smart’.

6. Make strategic thinking your new jam. Think differently about your work. Having moved to a team lead or leadership position, mentally prepare yourself to let go of daily run rate tactical stuff that can be managed very well by one of your smart team members. With the extra time that you have post the process improvement exercises described in the previous points, you can now don the hat of the strategic thinker. If you find that you are over worked and if you plan to request your manager to take some items off your place, it will be smart to retain strategic initiatives and Process improvements. Let go off tactical operational level work.

When you plan to work on your goals, KRAs and KPIs for the future, ensure that along with getting operational stuff done, include Strategic initiatives and Process improvements as KRAs. Unless these are given the status of KRAs, are reviewed and tracked periodically, they will never get the focus they deserve.

What can derail your success in this endeavour?

Leadership is 10% skill set and 90% mindset.  One needs to develop the right kind of thinking to develop the leadership capabilities.

Here is a list of quick fixes that can help you get started..

  1. Find your motivations for being busy. We love being busy because it makes us feel valued and worthy in the organization. Some of us love the adrenaline rush that we get when we have been through a stressful day and have accomplished as task well at the end of the day. Some of us live for that, it’s a kind of high we want to experience every day. Being busy is a kind of high. As we grow up the ladder, we need to shift focus from the tactical to the strategic activities.
  2. Set boundaries: Developing a good work routine that includes time for strategic thinking and time for various other activities will be a good idea. For eg. Plan and have meetings only in the even weeks of the month, so that you are free in the odd weeks to focus on strategic work. Another idea to consider will be to plan all your meetings post lunch, so that your mornings are free for uninterrupted work. Or, block out all Monday afternoons for strategic thinking. You can think and create these routines that will work well for you and your team.
  3. Be ok with letting go: Becoming a leader means letting go off daily deliverables and working on fewer deliverables that have long term impact. For those who get an adrenaline rush everyday out of accomplishing several tasks and meeting daily deadlines, it may be a difficult thing to let go off that activity. But, as long as we continue to focus on the daily rush, we won’t be able to make time to focus on the long term vision that’s on the horizon. So, the right thing to do is to delegate better and allow the next level team members to take over.
  4. Ask the big questions: Go after big things. If any one were to ask you, What gave you satisfaction today? Would you take pride in replying that you managed to strike off 50 items on the to do list? You need to be able to leave the to do list behind and graduate to more compelling work. You should be able to tell that your work on the new project will help your organization achieve its Mission 2025. So, ask yourself the big questions, ones that are creative and not reactive – Who can we really be as a company? What’s really possible as a team? What would be great for us?  If you notice, none of those have a timeframe on them.

About the Author:

Sandhya Reddy is a PCC Accredited Executive Coach and Leadership coach based in Bangalore, India. She is the Founder and Principal Coach at Chapter Two Coaching, a coaching consultancy that specializes in leadership development.  She is also a certified Hogan Assessor and Coach. She has over 750+ hours of experience with coaching senior professionals. She has enabled personal transformation for over 1500+ individuals through coaching interventions, workshops, webinars and mentoring.

Chapter Two helps leaders in middle levels and senior levels engage better with their teams, peers and senior stakeholders. We help teams develop a growth and performance mindset, align better with the organizational culture and values and function more cohesively. We are also passionate about women’s leadership development and have developed a practice around it. We enable leadership development through 1:1 coaching interventions and through a set of curated leadership and personal transformational workshops.




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