The skill behind all strategy

Let’s try something.

I want to give you a feeling of what happens to your brain when you think strategically.  Ready to go?  Let’s begin with imagining some menial task in your day job.  Writing an email.  Filing an invoice.  That sort of thing.

Now, zoom out.

Zoom out so you can see that task within the context of your role.  The way it fits into your personal responsibilities, your other tasks.

Now, zoom out again.

Zoom out so you can see your role within the context of your division, or your department.  The way your role complements the roles of those around you.  How your team fits together.

Now, zoom out again.

Zoom out so you can see how your division sits within the organisation as a whole.  See what its purpose is.  See what its relationships are.  See it like an organ in body of the business.

Now, zoom out again.

Zoom out so you can see your organisation within the context of its category.  See where it sits in relation to competitor brands.  See where it overlaps.  See where it balances.

Now, zoom out again.

Zoom out so you can see the category within the context of other categories.  What is it dependent on?  What is dependent on it?  What is its relationship with a larger macro industry?

Now, zoom out again.

Zoom out so you can see this industry at large, and how it sits in culture.  What is its place in people’s lives?  What are their assumptions?  Their prejudices?  The baggage they carry associated with it?

…OK, that’s enough.  I won’t make you zoom out any more (although we could).

Did you feel it?

Did you feel the shifting perspective?

Did you feel the interconnectedness, and how that email you’re writing, or that invoice you’re filing, is a tiny node, or cell, within a vast a coherent organism?

That is the feeling you need to call upon when thinking strategically.  That feeling of being able to zoom in and out, like a camera lens.  To see how things interrelate not horizontally (the way most people think), but vertically.

The actual “level of strategy”, for the most part, is the organisational one.  But it’s not sufficient to rest there.  For you see in order to understand the right path for the organisation you must understand what is happening “above” it (in category, in industry, in culture).  And you must also understand what is happening “below” it, at the level of departments, people, and actions.

You must be able to take in the whole thing, top to bottom, in an instant.

This is why it is hard.

The natural tendency of most people is explicitly not to do this.  Most people like to zoom one way – in.  They burrow.  They like to get stuck in.  To look closer.  If left to their own devices they will slip silently down the chain of reality, to a level where things feel safe.  Predictable.  Concrete.

Understand, there is nothing wrong with this.  It’s a valuable skill.  Some can do it to a level of genius.  Most jobs in the world rely on it.

But then again, most jobs aren’t strategic.

Few are the people who, in a state of relaxation, zoom the other way.  Out, and up, and wider.  These are the people we might call “natural” strategists.  They exist.  But they are not normal.  They are also not necessarily very reliable or competent.  And statistically, they are not you.

So what is to be done?

We must practice.

We must practice the zooming out (the zooming in will take care of itself).  We must wrench ourselves up the chain of being, always seeking to understand how our actions fit at higher and higher levels.

Do this enough, and it will evolve from a chore, to a skill, to something you do instinctively.

How might we do this?

  1. Ask why.  Why are we doing this current task?  What is the purpose?  What does it ladder up to?  Does it even need to be done?  Contextualise everything.  You’ll be surprised how much stuff is, in the final analysis, totally pointless.
  1. Have something to refer up to.  People are often told to think about what their “purpose” is, and to evaluate the way they’re spending time accordingly.  Well, businesses need to do the same with their strategies.  If you have one, you can stick it on the wall.  You can reference it.  You can ask it for guidance.  All of which will make the zoom out instant and easy.  But if you don’t have one, you’ll find it exceptionally hard.
  1. Reflect.  In the past, scholars would have a  “memento mori” on their desk.  An item like a skull which said “remember you must die”.  Well, these seem to have gone out of fashion now, but what about something that helps you remember to zoom out?  A “memento strategy” if you will.  I’m not sure a skull would do the trick, but luckily for you this is what I try to do with these emails and my Linkedin posts.  I want to offer you a brief respite from detail.  A moment where you can raise your head, and breathe.  Keep reading, and it’ll get easier.  I promise.


The great leaders (which is to say, great strategists) were those who could flick from the cosmic to the granular and back again effortlessly.

It’s a worthy aspiration, but we don’t need to get that far.

Just being able to peel our eyes from the to-do-list is a start.

When you think about it, it’s all strategic thinking really is.

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