Don’t Just Learn from the Past. Learn from the Future, too

Second Floor Plan, Gallery of Fine Arts, Yale University (1929) by Egerton Swartwout (American, 1870-1943)/Artvee

Strategic thinking and tactical execution is one of the best skill combinations for anyone looking to step up their career. In particular, being able to think strategically is the key to adding more value to a company, and higher leverage in compensation. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably developed a strong competency for tactics, and are looking to pair it up with a competency for strategy.

Having put together marketing and content strategies for CEOs and business leaders for several years now, I’ve learned how simple this can be. While consulting companies and leaders may have made strategy look complicated and mystical, it’s actually deceptively simple. 

A Strategy is Nothing More than a Plan

Strategy is the process of getting from where you are, with what you have, to where you want to go. You may know strategy to involve meetings, consensus, buy-in, forecasting, and bureaucracy. It’s a little known secret that that sort of strategizing—known as formal strategic planning—doesn’t create that much value for companies

Real business value comes through informal strategy, when people talk to each other and share information. That’s why savvy business leaders design their offices for people to have more spontaneous, unplanned, meetings.

It doesn’t always take someone else to create a strategy, of course. If you’re planning for yourself, you can make use of that type of informal strategy. You can also make time to adapt to new opportunities and information through weekly reviews with yourself

Similarly, in The Passion Economy, author Adam Davidson talks to MIT professor Scott Stern about strategy. While the word can be intimidating, Stern says it can be rooted in the most basic questions: What are you selling? Who most wants it? Why do they want it? How do they pay for it?

At first, a strategy is not meant to be a perfect plan, it’s meant to be a starting point. As you start taking in information and feedback from the real world, you will adapt your strategy accordingly. You will keep your eyes open and allow it to emerge. As you develop your understanding, your strategy will also become more firm and foundational, into a plan and method that you stick to.

Take Yourself to the Future, and Look Back at Your Path

Informal strategy and execution looks like a constant navigation, hedgehogging slowly and steadily between opportunities, projects, and learning, until you get to where you want to go. 

In Diaminds, Mihnea Moldoveanu and Roger Martin define audacity as, “The proclivity to make the abductive leap that takes one to imagine a desired state of the world that is implausible or even inconceivable right now—to take seriously the notion that this implausible state of the world is real and then work to bring about the conditions that will supply the best explanation as to how it came about. Talk about the future as if it were the past [emphasis added].” 

Setting a goal, and defining a clear vision, is a good first step. You follow this up by taking yourself to that vision, and look backwards at the paths and projects you took to get there. There will be specific capabilities and insights you notice you’re missing, and probably some things you don’t even know that you don’t know—which you can only gain through conversations and stories—that you need to remain open to learning. 

Strategy in Action

As I’m thinking through how I can further develop my career as an author, I find books and authors as references to help define my vision. I also start asking myself, what is the difference between the way we are allocating our resources? Is there an advantage I can gain by developing a different skill, covering different topics, or spending money to try things out or to find tools and software that can advance me towards my goals? 

I imagine the hypothetical question, how would a bestselling author think about this? As I meet more and more bestselling authors, I can refine my perspective and get more specific—either imagining hypothetical responses, or actually asking them. Which would lead to the question, “What can I do to learn these things from a bestselling author? What value can I add to their work that might compel them to exchange information with me?”

Working specifically backwards from my future enables me to get past the general, high-level, confusion that holds most strategies back. It enables me to work beyond all of the possibilities, and instead to start between where I want to go and where I am today. It focuses not on “What can someone do to get there?” but instead, “What can my business do to get there?” General lessons from the past will always be helpful too, as people tend to change slowly and repeat patterns. Still, it’s learning from the future, and working backwards, that will enable you to arrive at the most useful insights.

If you enjoyed this article, you’ll love my Best of Books newsletter, where I send three of the best books to your inbox every month. Thanks for reading.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *