Strategists always are some sort of consultant. They help businesses make their way into the future.
A consultant should have in-depth specialist knowledge, shouldn’t he?
So a strategist is mostly expected to provide answers to existential questions like What will our market look like in ten years? or How can I protect my customer base in the long term?
Who would expect a strategist to have more questions than answers?
The best strategist is the one who asks the most questions before he gives his first answer.
Only recently I came across some support for this view of mine:
Martin Zwilling of Startup Professionals Inc. compiled his main takeaways from Chris Brogan’s book The Freaks Shall Inherit the Earth on his blog recently. As number four he states:
Get comfortable with not knowing. Learn to be okay with the unknown, and learn how to really appreciate what comes next in the universe. Don’t be afraid of being dumb; always be willing to ask questions. You should be afraid of being stupid; being stupid means that you think you know everything and don’t ever ask questions.
This is excellent advice – not only for entrepreneurs as Martin and Chris suggest. I think that every strategist should adopt this mindset. Here is why:
- It’s obvious: strategy is all about the future. Nobody knows for sure what comes next. The best thing we can achieve is an educated guess.
- A diligent analysis of the external situation, trends and potential changes is the easier part of strategic planning. Nevertheless, this can be a lot of work. Finally, the strategist may come up with a set of scenarios, one of them labelled “most probable”. After hard work and much discussion, strategists and whole organizations are easily tempted to take their new “shared view of the future” for granted.
Don’t fall into this trap.
- A strategist who is comfortable with not knowing what comes next is far more inclined to develop a set of alternate strategies and contingency plans, just in case the “most probable” future does not become reality. Thus, he is much better prepared for whatever may happen.
- A strategist has to ask questions. It is his job to know the processes, the tools, and methods, to bring in a strategic mindset. It is not his job to know every detail of the organization and its business environment. The knowledge required for the internal and external analysis as well as for making viable future projections is spread across the organization. By asking lots of questions everywhere, the strategist can tap much deeper into the tacit and explicit knowledge deep down in every division.
- I noticed an important positive side effect of asking questions during my work in a central corporate strategy department: It helped me to build trust and acceptance throughout the organization. A strategist who asks questions is not a know-it-all who tells people how to do their jobs. He is a partner at eye level.
Be assured, you won’t be perceived as being dumb. You just signal that you acknowledge both partners’ specialist knowledge, which is in different fields.
To bring all this together:
A wise strategist needs to ask a lot of questions first, in order to provide some reasonable answers later on.