One of my coaching clients is an entrepreneur whose business looks great on paper. In year 2–3, she had made a whopping 83% profit. Everything seemed to be going perfectly. Yet, when we took what I call a “strategic pause” to review her goals, I noted that personally, she wasn’t doing great. She was burnt out and exhausted.
The problem was that she has a small team with a packed schedule, and all her products are one-off creations she produces herself. Concerned, I saw that all her new goals revolved around adding more one-off products because they were working—but she hadn’t taken her burnout and stress into account.
Her new goals weren’t strategic or sustainable in the long run, and if I hadn’t pushed her to regroup, doing “what’s worked so far” would have taken its toll over time — a toll she couldn’t afford.
What Is a Strategic Pause?
Strategic pauses are just what they sound like — pauses in routine. They come in many forms, but the key is that they are, first and foremost, strategic.
The main reason to “pause” is to think from a different perspective. It’s a pause in the routine —and the routine thinking — to allow other types of thinking and decision-making to emerge. Often, people get used to making decisions in one way, but it’s not always the best approach. For instance, an interesting study done in 2011 published in Emotion found that long-term deliberation, long considered the best approach to decision making, is not necessarily superior in some situations. In fact, researchers found, intuition and feeling-based assessment can actually lead to much better decisions in complex situations. There’s good sense in taking a “mind break” to look at things differently, including feelings and other aspects that are being ignored.
Often, people don’t want to take the time for strategic pauses. It’s tempting to keep up with the same old daily grind, get the job done, and feel like you’ve achieved something. The endorphins from checking all those things off the list can be addictive. But what if almost nothing on the list will move you further toward true progress? What if you haven’t identified your real needs yet? What if you’ve been so busy doing the things that have always worked, you haven’t noticed they’re no longer working so well? That’s when a strategic pause can help you find the next path forward.
The “strategic” part is twofold:
- It’s not just a rest day or a random cessation of events; it’s a strategically designed pause to achieve a specific goal.
- The specific goal itself involves creating a better strategy for identifying and achieving the right goals.
So, ultimately, it’s a strategically designed pause to create a better set of goals and strategies.
Five Tips for a Productive Strategic Pause
We’ve all been there:
- The corporate retreat that no one feels made any difference.
- The offsite team planning meeting that tries to solve the same problems with the same solutions we tried last week, and the week before.
- The task force that comes up with a solution to a problem that doesn’t end up making any impact.
- The morning time you set aside to plan your month’s goals that ends up leaving you feeling you don’t have enough time or resources to accomplish them.
These are attempted strategic pauses that don’t work. They happen to everyone, everywhere. The reason is mainly the mindset we have going in. If we’re not prepared to achieve the two points above — to strategically design it, and to use it to create a better strategy — it won’t succeed.
To get more out of your strategic pauses, here are five tips for designing and using them, regardless of their format.
- Give yourself the margin you really need: no ifs, ands, or buts.
I recently guided an organization through a strategic pause during which they were supposed to identify new growth opportunities. However, during the exercise, it became apparent that they weren’t ready for growth. They had too many internal structural issues to contend with. Recognizing this, they decided to extend their strategic pause to first realign their internal structures and eliminate issues with roles within the business. Only then would they be ready to take on new growth opportunities. This was not only smart, it saved them huge amounts of time and headaches in the long run.
- Involve the right people.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but people don’t always think about this part strategically. Based on the goal for your strategic pause, are the right people at the table? If your goal is to improve customer service, have you invited any key clients to give their ideas and feedback? If you’re planning your next business move, do you have your finance people and/or business office there to find the money? If you’re streamlining operations, do you have representation from all areas? If you’re stuck, have you hired a consultant or a facilitator to help? If you’re planning your own next career move, have you involved a mentor or business coach?Sometimes the right people can cut through all the mental clutter and save hours, weeks, even months of time.
- Prioritize valuable, actionable outcomes above staying on the presupposed task.
The company I used as my earlier example is a perfect example of this. They thought they were at the table to do one thing and realized they really needed to do something entirely different. Instead of trying to “stay on task” with the first goal, they owned their situation and willingly jettisoned that goal to start over. If they hadn’t, their pause would have been an efficient, routine organizational retreat where they did all the same things they did last year, and the year before, but it would not have been valuable.My burnt-out client is another example. We were there to set new business goals for the coming year but quickly realized we needed to completely revamp her entire business focus, then set the goals — the right goals. Otherwise, we would have been very efficient at setting all the wrong goals that would have taken her down the path of burnout in no time.Remember: Strategy is based on having a valuable outcome. You must have something valuable and actionable to use at the end of the strategic pause.
- Think from a different perspective to find the hidden gems.
This is where a facilitator is so helpful. Routine mindsets and internal baggage can stifle innovation and creativity, even in offsite, fun settings. A facilitator who’s not embedded in the situation will ask fresh questions to stimulate new thinking, will notice things the others don’t, and will spot crucial information that’s been buried. Most organizational problems are multidimensional, yet the true underlying issues are things people don’t even think about — unconscious assumptions, mindsets, beliefs that drive their actions. I wrote my book, She Thinks Big, in large part to help people uncover these unconscious mindset issues inhibiting their progress. So many times, clients know they’re not getting anywhere but can’t explain why. Almost always, unrealized internal factors are affecting their decisions.
- Build different pauses with different goals into your work structure.I tell my clients that how you manage your time is how you manage your mind. Time that’s not managed well reflects poorly managed thought. This goes for embedding strategic pauses into your routine, too. Without time to think, you won’t get a valuable outcome.A strategic pause could be as simple as firmly sticking to an uninterrupted half-hour every morning to plan your day. It could be an offsite team meeting each month to discuss a specific goal. It could be an organization-wide retreat meant to build teamwork and communication. Whatever types you use, they should always give you something valuable and actionable to implement within a specified time period.
Bonus: You Can Have Spontaneous Strategic Pauses
That’s right — you don’t have to plan them. When your mind is trained to think strategically, you’ll just automatically take the strategic pause when it’s needed. That could be during your routine team meeting when everyone suddenly decides to stop and discuss something really important that comes up. You may decide to schedule a meeting to further the discussion, but the initial strategic pause is what created that valuable, actionable outcome.
When you start thinking this way, you will be much more aware of when you need call an audible and just move to address the real issue, whenever it shows up.
Written by Andrea Liebross.
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