We all get busy. We have these goals of getting to some project, or carving out time to do something different, or thoughts of making some long term, innovative plans for how to improve our organization. But the day-to-day tasks somehow seem to eat up the time.

I recently asked one of my senior leaders about his long term strategy for his division. He told me he was “working on it” but that it was difficult to think five years out “when you’re in a knife fight every day.”

That’s true. When someone is trying to stab you it is probably the wrong time to start making long-term plans.

But this begs some questions… like “why are YOU in the knife fight?” or “why are you in a KNIFE fight?” or “how might this fight end?” or “is this fight winnable?”

With respect to the first question, this isn’t always our fault: we often get dragged into knife fights that we want nothing to do with. The phone rings and suddenly you can toss today’s schedule out because somebody somewhere did or said something that will occupy all of your time for the foreseeable future. You pick up your knife and prepare to do battle.

But how much time should a senior leader spend in that fight? Most of us think we must stay in it until the fight is over. Depending on the issue, that might be the right answer, but this is rarely the case. Too often we think we must personally wield the knife for the whole fight instead of passing that knife to someone else. When you are in the throes of battle, you don’t have much time to reflect or engage in creative diversions… you have to survive! So if you, the leader, are holding the knife and fighting for your life, who is doing the thinking?

I was taught to always try to keep at least one person between you and the problem. This distance gives you perspective, and some intellectual swing space to start looking at other options.

This brings us to the second question, “why are you in a KNIFE fight?” Knife fights are messy things, and anyone who has trained for fighting with blades expects to get cut regardless of how good they are. That doesn’t sound like fun to me. So why are we so willing to step into such a fight? Why not change the nature of the fight? To paraphrase Sean Connery’s character in the Untouchables, why bring a knife to a gun fight?

If you’re the one holding the knife, it is hard to think about where you are going to get a gun. If, on the other hand, you can hand the knife to someone else, you can buy the time you need to think about how you can change the nature of the fight you are in.

The first step in thinking about changing the nature of the conflict, of course, is exploring the nature of the fight itself. Is it a fight to the death? Is it against a capable foe? Is it winnable? What are the costs of being in this fight, and is it worth it? Is this even MY fight, or does it belong to someone else?

It seems to me that one of the dangers of personally getting locked into a fight is that these questions go unexplored, and we will likely remain stuck in the knife fight indefinitely. Sure we may get better and better at fighting, but can we ever really win like this?

By the way, while you are busy trading stabs and slices, the next knife fight is brewing somewhere else. You going to get caught up in that one, too? If senior leaders constantly fight today’s battle, is anyone trying to shape the conditions for tomorrow? Keep going like this and you will find yourself 10 years down the road in the same kind of fight you’re in now, asking yourself the same kinds of questions.

Have I stretched this metaphor far enough? How does this manifest in real life?

Suppose your organization is hosting a “Strategic Offsite” in a few months where the senior leaders will gather and discuss the “Mission, Vision, Values, Goals and Priorities” of the organization for the upcoming year or two. You’ve been given ample time to reflect on these, formulate your ideas for your division and for the larger organization, and plan out the resources necessary for making the required changes to modernize or improve your organization.

Note that I wrote, “You’ve been given ample time.” I didn’t say you used it.

A week or two after the announcement for the offsite went out you sat down to map out your goals and priorities, but then something came up. Someone called, or an unscheduled meeting happened. That’s ok. You still have plenty of time to look at that strategic stuff. Another week or two slips by. You decide you need to get after it, and actually block off time on your calendar. That morning, someone at your higher headquarters sends you a note and a link to a negative news article about something you didn’t know about in your organization. Well, better go deal with that. You’ll get to the strategic stuff later, right?

The weeks slip by like this, and every time you think about getting after the long-term thinking thing, something that “absolutely requires your personal attention” interrupts.

The result is that you attend the offsite with some vague, unexplored ideas that have no resourcing behind them, and look pretty similar to the stuff you did last time. It looks pretty similar, by the way, because you brought the slides from last time because “find out what we did last time” has now become the substitute for strategic thinking. Because you didn’t have time, right?

Leaders have to do better than that. If every single issue is one that “absolutely requires your personal attention” you have probably failed to hire, develop, empower, and trust your subordinates to handle things. The fact is that most “emergencies” are likely fairly routine things with just some small aspect out of norm.

I always wondered what people would say if you put “thinking strategically” on your calendar once a month and blocked off a few hours to put your feet up on your desk and just think.

I guess it would depend on whether or not you actually did it or if you let some knife-wielding neer-do-well kick your feet off the desk.

One thought on “Knife Fights and Strategic Thinking

  1. Excellent post by a college classmate of mine, truer words have never been said. As a Kiowa Warrior driver and commander I would always strive to shoot “someone else’s” ammo whenever possible…engaging organically only when necessary. Handoff those less “critical” engagements to others on your Team(s) saving yourself for the fights that really matter… “strategically”.


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