Seven Disciplines of Strategic Thinking – Reflect/Be Simple

February 6, 2009

Today we take a look at the fifth and sixth disciplines in my book, ‘reflect’ and ‘be simple’. Last year during one of my presentations on the key disciplines of strategic thinking one of the audience members asked me to prioritise the disciplines. As they are all part of a holistic approach I patiently explained that none is more important than the others but the lady was not satisfied. ‘I don’t know how you expect us to use these principles if you, yourself, are unable to prioritise them’ she said with an air of finality. I didn’t resolve the issue on the day but it did set me to thinking. For me the core, and most difficult, is reflection, which underpins many of the other disciplines. However, if I was forced to pick only one to live by it would be simplicity.

In reality I am probably the world’s worst practitioner of simplicity. Not only am I trying to simultaneously achieve a multitude of endeavours but even my house overflows with physical clutter; books, music, projects (many unfinished) and even toys that my teenagers have left behind long ago but somehow still have emotional impact (mostly to me). And I am not about to give away my Dostoyevsky collection anytime soon; reading those books again will be one of my retirement pleasures. But the more I have thought about it the more I am convinced that simplifying our lives is the single most practical way of gaining the space for reflection and opening up the creative insights, possibilities and opportunities that lie in that place ‘between our thoughts’.


Reflection is the lynch pin of strategic thinking. We cannot access a deeper part of ourselves and the inherent wisdom contained therein unless we put some time aside to do so, time spent away from the constant demands of our hectic day-to-day schedules. This time can be spent in a formal practice such as meditation or yoga but it can equally be centred on walking, exercise, sport or being in nature. It is not so much what we do as becoming conscious of the importance of slowing down, observing and reflecting before acting. Reflection is the foundation of strategic thinking and it is the most difficult discipline in the book to put into practice.

Some close friends of mine attended a course held at a monastery a few years back and the monks had the practice of ringing the bells every couple of hours for two minutes silence. Just as the group would be on the brink of coming to a decision on some ‘important’ matter the bell would inevitably go and everything would have to stop. How frustrating! Two minutes had never seemed so long. It reminded me of my early school days when we played football during the breaks. Wasn’t it always the way that when we just about to score that perfect goal the bell would inevitably go? And then there’s that universal temptation. ‘Just another minute’, ‘I know I can get that ball in the back of the net … if only I had that extra minute.’

And here’s the funny thing about that bell. Our frustration subsides during the silence. We don’t pick up where we left off, or at least not exactly where we left off. We ask ourselves instead, ‘now why were we talking about that, surely it’s a side issue?’ ‘Maybe that decision wasn’t one that was worth having. Let’s get back on track and do what we are here to do.’ We reframe, we reconnect to the central purpose of what’s in hand. That’s all it takes sometimes, one or two minutes of reflection. It was the same for me with football. I really wasn’t very good at scoring goals. In fact, my soccer skills were quite limited altogether. I was, if anything, much more effective in defense and by racing up the field I was normally over-extending myself and making my team vulnerable. Formal lesson time allowed me the time to reframe my tactics and return to where I was least damaging from my team’s perspective!

In ‘The Strategic Mind’ I look extensively at BP (which explicitly acknowledges the importance of reflection its decision making process) and the legacy of John Browne, its former CEO, who built an enduring legacy at the company, leaving it as a highly successful commercial organisation and a strategic leader in green energy. In many organisations, however, reflection is anything but encouraged – it looks too much like inaction. Not many companies welcome their staff shutting their eyes for 20 minutes and meditating to clear their minds! So it’s nice to know that there is another way to clear the mind that takes the very opposite approach to that above.

It is particularly useful for those of us who are more action oriented by nature and who bridle at the prospect of time spent ‘passively’ in inner contemplation. Instead of adopting a practice to consciously quiet the mind, we engage fully in an active pursuit. In fact, we immerse ourselves in it. This is most powerful when it involves service to others. A practice of service to others allows us to distance ourselves from our own issues, problems and challenges. By gaining space and distance from our own ‘stuff’ we not only gain a different perspective but we also open up to the possibility of new insights and approaches emerging. By stepping into somebody else’s shoes, by engaging fully in the service of others, we temporarily ‘shut off’ the constant stream of thoughts that clamor for our attention, allowing the space for deeper insights and creative solutions to come through.

It is strange but when the issues we face are most intractable (and the temptation is therefore to throw more time and effort at them) it is often helpful to withdraw for a short while and immerse ourselves in something else entirely. Ironically, this withdrawal (or detachment) often opens up the space to be able to challenge the closed loop of self limiting assumptions that have held us back from seeing a wider picture. Although we can do almost anything this process is particularly powerful when we are in service to others because it is through relationship with others that creative insight often occurs. In my own case I often find that the problems that I am working on with my clients mirror my own and I can apply the creative insight gained directly to my own life.

Be Simple

Simplicity plays a critical, and largely unrecognised, role in defining strategic and competitive advantage. The ability to focus on our task in hand is one of the key determinants of successfully meeting our key goals and objectives. It allows us to direct our energy in a purposeful manner avoiding fragmentation and distraction. Simplicity in life allows us to reduce the baggage that we carry around with us and makes us far more flexible and adaptable in our personal and working lives. It works even better within organisations where ‘complexity creep’ can reduce innovation, creativity and sometimes even the will to live of the people who work there!

Simplicity is important. It is the foundation for clarity and focus in our lives. Musician and writer, Jim Brickman, suggests a number of simplification practices in his book, ‘Simple Things’, including ignoring email for a day, removing one unused appliance from the kitchen counter, waking up 15 minutes early and using the time selfishly and vowing to listen rather than talk. It may seem that you are not doing anything relevant or important with these practices but it will move your energy and, at a deeper level, create the space to allow new ideas, insights and opportunities into your life. The process is cumulative and it is also rather enjoyable. I follow up the simplicity practice by asking my clients to answer a single question and it is this. ‘What is the one thing that you would like to achieve over the next six months?’ Like many simple questions, it is harder to answer than one might think!

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