Action Without Thought is Impulsiveness, Thought Without Action is Procrastination

Action with thought is impulsiveness thought without action is procrastination - Greg Githens

Impulsiveness is “the trait of acting suddenly on impulse without reflection.” Impulses are often described as “whims, sudden involuntary inclinations, unpremeditated, and instinctual urges.” Impulsiveness is good in some situations: an almost child-like quality marked by spontaneity, playfulness, and humor.

On the other hand, impulsiveness may be nothing more than bad habit and selfishness. When impulsiveness is unwanted, the message seems to be this:

think – that is, reflect at a deeper level – before acting.

The opposite of strategic thinking might be mindlessness. The characteristics of mindless thinking are little concern with outcomes, present focused, focus on concrete elements of the task, little imagination, little courage, lost in details, and unconcerned with opportunities.  When scientists want to study people with high degrees of impulsivity, they research inmates in prisons!

Procrastination is a habit of delaying action on something that is important. It is often habitual and arises from analysis paralysis, lazy thinking, fear, or unclear values. Procrastinators should take action, but don’t.

Procrastination is not an intentional delay to minimize the probability of loss.  As psychologist Piers Steel (author of the The Procrastination Equation) points out, procrastination is an irrational delay. Thus, procrastination is not strategic in the sense of avoiding threats or capturing opportunities.

Both Impulsiveness and Procrastination Are Disengaged Thinking

The extraordinary availability of gadgetry – smartphones and the like – seems rule people’s life: stories emerge of people checking for updates in the most inappropriate of places or times: church, job interviews, seminars, driving, and even sex!

Gadgetry and impulsiveness seem to go together. People need to think through the consequences.  Impulsive use of gadgetry is also procrastination, in that it defers action something important that you know you should be doing (developing a spiritual life, showing a basic courtesy to an interviewer, paying attention to new learnings, being a safe driver, being intimate).

People who thinking strategically focus on that which is important to their success. They know that there are more and less important things in life, and they need to make choices about when to be bold and when to be cautious.

To Think Strategically is to Balance Thought and Action

Both impulsiveness and procrastination seem to be in tension with each other. That means that each is a polarity to manage, and the key in any polarity is to manage a balance. How?  First, I try to monitor and manage my attention so that I don’t spend too much time in thought, and to catch myself when I am impulsively plunging into action.  Even better, I trying to both “think and do” simultaneously; with practice, it is not too hard.  Also, I find perspective in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

Second, I keep in mind the idea that mistakes can easily be made (by me and by others). I constantly try to be alert for mistakes, and I have internalized that into a technique that I call The Compact Approach to Strategy.

The third thing I do is related to mistake avoidance: I maintain the vision or working definition of success for myself or the endeavor at hand. Strategic thinking is not the same as creative thinking; creative thinking is concerned with cleverness and strategic thinking is concerned with strategy and success.

Fourth, I recall experiences in agile product development organizations, where they divide work into discrete chunks, and use experimentation and prototyping.  This iterative approach gives us useful information that allows them to rapidly move towards workable ideas.  They are not concerned with the perfection; they are concerned with workable ideas that serve as small wins for betterment.

Are You “Lost in the Weeds?”

I frequently am asked a question by people who know they should be strategic, but are trapped by habit into a comfort zone of technical activities. They ask, “How do I keep myself from being lost in the weeds?”

My reply is that they first should congratulate themselves, because they are recognizing they have a problem that is limiting their effectiveness. This is not unlike addiction recovery programs; the first step is to “admit that you have a problem” and understand how this problem is affecting yourself and others.  (Admittedly, the problem of “being tactical” rather than strategic may not equate to the misery of drug addiction, but it still affects your life in that you may be missing opportunities that could lead to your success.)

“Being tactical rather than strategic” is a form of procrastination.

Regardless, being “lost in the weeds” is both a habit of spending too much time in your comfort  zone (rather than your learning zone). As basic as it may be, the advice is simple: raise up your head (pay attention) and look around (at the strategic context).

Competent strategic thinkers manage their attention, and are aware of the balance between contemplation and action. As you get more comfortable with this balance, you will find that thought and action are more similar than they are different.

How does the idea that “action without thought is impulsiveness and thought without action is procrastination” apply to your goal to be a better strategic thinker?

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Alertness for Strategic Opportunities: Hold These Three Attitudes

opportunities are everywhere

All though it is true that strategy involves some sort of premeditation, any experienced general knows that the plan will change with the first shots of battle. Opportunities will open up in unexpected places; so, strategic thinkers want to be alert – watchful, vigilant, and perceptive – for opportunities.

Passive and Active Opportunity Recognition

An opportunity is an event, observation, or option that has the potential to be favorable to someone. The word opportunity in Latin is a contraction of the words “ob” and “portus,” meaning facing in the direction of harbor.  Picture yourself as a Roman seaman, sailing in from the treacherous sea, with the wind blowing you naturally into the harbor. This is passive opportunity recognition: sometimes opportunities happen on their own. Luck is a good thing! Accept the gift and move on.

Entrepreneurs develop a sense of discovering, pursuing, and capitalizing on opportunities that lead to principled success. They are active in their thinking. Again, picture yourself as a Roman seaman entering a port filled with people who want to trade with you.  Your short-term opportunity is to buy and sell. Your long-term opportunity is the recognition of patterns and development of business relationships.

There are three attitudes that can help you be more alert to opportunities.

Attitude 1: Expect to be Surprised

Status quo situations are stable, predictable, and understandable. Although future can be these things, it can also be the opposite. You will be more likely to recognize opportunity if you assume your situation is characterized with these terms: dynamic, ill-structured, ambiguous, and unpredictable.

Evidence is all around us that some industries are undergoing profound and disruptive change. The winners are not those who have the grandest aspirations and goals and most polished processes; they are the ones who can recognize the change early enough and adapt with agility. You will increase your chances for success if you,

Assume the situation is chaotic, and then ask yourself: where are the opportunities?Strategic Thinking Definition

Attitude 2: Have a Mentality of Abundance

Here we choose an assumption that we are blessed an abundance of creativity, talent, connections, ideas, technology, karma, and so forth. Admittedly it is optimistic, but holding an attitude of abundance doesn’t need to be seen as unrealistic.

Here is a personal example: I don’t particularly like to prospect for new clients. However, I find that when I assume (imagine, visualize)  that people will say, “I’m really glad you contacted me,” I find that I am more motivated to make the contacts.  Sometimes the prospecting pays off handsomely!

I see the opposite attitude frequently: the attitude of scarcity. The attitude of scarcity appears when a person assumes that there is finite and limited time, money, people, or resources.  Here is one example of how it manifests itself. In my seminars, I often have an icebreaker game that involves designing a structure out of pipe cleaners where teams have to design and construct it in 10 minutes.  When we debrief afterwards, participants typically note that the time limit restricted the quality of their design. My response to them is, “I would have given you more time if you would have asked for it. I also have more materials available and I would have given you more if you would have asked.”  Their faces show amazement as they realize their scarcity assumption about time and resources has foreclosed on an opportunity.

You will be more alert to opportunity if you hold an attitude of abundance.

Attitude 3: The Criterion is Plausibility, Not Perfection

When opportunities emerge, they are usually messy and incomplete. These imperfections are discouraging if not downright unattractive. Sometimes and it seems little use in building a business case. This observation from venture capitalist Don Rainey shows the value of looking past imperfections,

Your ability to see the imperfection shouldn’t blind you to the larger possibilities. In my venture capital firm, when we hire new, (typically younger people), into the business, we are accustomed to the newcomers hating every deal. They are smart enough to see the imperfection but not yet experienced enough to be confident accepting that the imperfection doesn’t define the opportunity. Endeavor to see the opportunity in spite of the imperfection of the current presentation.

I suggest that you consciously use the word “plausible” as you evaluate the worthiness of an opportunity.  This helps you make a nice conceptual fit with the 4Ps futures that I discussed in this article.

Calm and Relaxed

As with any kind of strategic thinking, you will get better results if you are in a relaxed and playful state of mind.

The right attitudes and mindset towards opportunity will make you a better strategic thinker. In addition to these three attitudes, what mindsets will help you?

How Strategists Produce Strategic Insights

how strategist produce strategic insightsStrategic thinking produces inputs to be used in the strategic planning/management process. Put simply,

The purpose of strategic thinking is to produce insights

 Insight is,

A person’s realization of “the true nature of a thing” and/or its relationship to some contextual factor.

 Examples of Strategic Insights

The discovery and application of  insights is central to strategyThe process of thinking strategically is purposeful in that the strategist intends to create advantage in the future. A few examples of strategic business insights are:

  • A marketeer’s realization that a customer need is not being met adequately by existing products or functions
  • An employee’s realization that an impending piece of regulation or legislation will fundamentally alter the industry.
  • An auditor’s realization that a pattern of transactions show fraud
  • An engineer’s realization that they have created a novel invention

Strategic insights are those insights that are useful for developing organizational strategy.

Three Kinds of Insights Needed for Business Strategy

In the context of organizational strategy, the strategist is searching for three kinds of insight. They are:

  • Insights about the current situation. What are the problems and opportunities?  What are stakeholder aspirations and motivations?
  • Insights about the future. What will be different, and what is preferred? Since choice of customers tends to be one of the most strategic decisions, what customers might be best to serve?
  • Insights about how to bridge the gap between present and future. These insights involve problem solving: taking into account a full range of constraints: competitive response, political will, resources, and organization.

Insights are a Neurological Flash

Research into the functions of the brain reveal  the right hemisphere a region (more specifically in the right hippocampus) is the location responsible for  insights involving verbal information. As neuroscientists continue mapping the brain, we are sure to get a better understanding of those mechanisms responsible for the practice of thinking strategically.

How to Generate Insights: Balance Thinking Hard with Detachment

Individuals have their own style of doing things. Research has not shown one best practice for generating insights. Rather than give you a cookbook, let me encourage you to apply some energy to each of these five activities.  Be patient, and insights will emerge!

  • Preparation – identifying issues, collecting and categorizing information, assembling resources
  • Strategic Thinking DefinitionAnalysis – actively looking for relationships and patterns in data. Continually asking questions and reframing to find new perspectives. Searching for what is interesting. Validation and hypothesis testing.
  • Detachment – Getting away from the issues and allowing the subconscious to work on the issues.
  • Articulation – Explaining the crux of the situation to others. Trial and error solutions.
  • Refinement and iteration – Returning to earlier activities.

Strategic Insights Are Those That Are Relevant and Meaningful

Earlier in this article, I defined insight as  A person’s realization of “the true nature of a thing” and/or its relationship to some contextual factor.   I close out this article with exploring the final part of the definition, the “relationship to some contextual factor.”

When people hear the word “insight” they typically assume that it must be a brilliant new observation: an epiphany.  However, I find that kind of “aha” to be rare. Instead of brilliance, I keep it simple by testing it with this criteria of relevance and meaningfulness. Here’s a useful question:

Is the insight relevant and meaningful?

A relevant insight is one that is connected to current situation, future, and the bridge between the two (these were mentioned earlier in this article). Ideally, this creates some sense of alignment.

A meaningful insight is one that makes sense in a narrative. Here, I imagine myself in the future explaining how I created a successful strategy. If find that as I grapple with expressing the insight, I get a better sense of its worth and its motivational power.

Finally, a “contextual factor” is something that is external to the organization.  Examples include technological change, the economy, a social trend, etc. For example, Absolute Vodka had data that its products were purchased for drinking at home parties. But, why? It turns out that many people buy a particular brand of spirits because that they connect it to a personal anecdote; telling that anecdote to others is a way to be humorous or to relate an adventure. This insight gives the company a foundation for creating marketing and product development strategies.

Implications for Organizational Process

Because organizations do not share a single brain, strategic thinking can only be a capability of individuals. This has important implications for the process of strategy. Most importantly, a good strategy development processes should allow time for individual research, analysis, and reflection. Individuals acquire insights through conscious analysis mixed with unconscious (intuitive) cognition.

It is has been said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Doesn’t it make sense that the perspiration is the act of thinking strategically to produce the insights?