Strategic thinking is the key to proactive management

The word "strategic" is thrown around a lot, but what does it really mean for IT's middle managers? Build credibility and effect positive change by thinking strategically about the ways your team can contribute to business goals.

TechRepublic member Eugene recently e-mailed me to ask how a new IT manager can learn to be a "more strategic alliance to business." The word "strategic" has been used in a variety of ways for work environments—strategic planning and strategic management, for example. However, another conceptual use of the term, "strategic thinking," can be very useful to new IT managers.

Management consultants and scholars often use the term strategic thinking in the context of winning business battles with external competitors. Senior managers may use the term when mapping out strategies to make their organizations more competitive. Although such examples are useful in understanding strategic thinking, they are not particularly relevant to IT managers who are trying to keep a LAN system up and running smoothly or to build credibility as a professional. So how does strategic thinking help IT managers address their own areas of concern?

One of the biggest frustrations front-line or middle managers express is the sense that they carry considerable responsibility without having any real power. One of my professors once referred to middle management as the "meat part of a really bad bologna sandwich." There is no doubt that being in the middle between senior managers and line staff is challenging. However, front-line or middle managers actually have an opportunity to play important roles in the successful operation of organizations. Their position in the middle is the source of their opportunities—and strategic thinking lets them tap into those opportunities.

Make a difference in the workplace
By using strategic thinking, you can often turn frustration into opportunity. Strategic thinkers:
  • Resist falling into the rut of reacting solely to the needs and demands of senior managers and line staff. Strategic thinkers develop an understanding of what needs to be accomplished by their work teams and strive to influence the way both senior managers and line staff view work priorities.
  • Learn to be successful synthesizers of information. Senior managers rely on front-line or middle managers to translate policy directives and priorities from the top into useful and coherent instructions to line staff. Those who are able to successfully implement top-level decisions at the line-staff level are coveted by senior management. Senior staff members also rely on team leaders or managers to give them information about operational issues that they can use to make policies and set priorities. Strategic thinkers use this opportunity to provide information in ways that promote their priorities and the needs of their team members.
  • Selectively champion goals and objectives that are important to them. Strategic thinkers identify one or two goals that are truly important and find ways to advocate for them among senior managers and line staff. Senior managers will quickly tire of someone who advocates for a wide variety of goals. However, if front-line and middle managers focus their efforts on a few important issues, senior managers—over time—will be tolerant and even come to expect specific reactions and feedback from them.

How to be a strategic thinker
The foundation for strategic thinking lies in the attitude you have toward your work and the people you supervise. It requires patience and an understanding of organizational dynamics. Here are a few ways that you can become a strategic thinker:
  • Pay attention and be ready for the unexpected. One of the potential traps of front-line and middle management is the tendency to become myopic. It is easy for managers of LANs to become so engrossed in the daily activities of their systems that they have a limited knowledge base of other organizational areas. Learn as much as you can about the entire organization and external and internal conditions that serve as opportunities or threats. Sometimes, circumstances can change very quickly and you want to be the person who is ready to adapt to new conditions.
  • Determine how your team's efforts can add value to the organization. Try to look beyond the routine work of your team and determine how the needs and priorities of the organization are changing. If the organization is expanding, how can your team play an important role in ensuring that technological needs are met? If the organization is downsizing, how can the importance of the team be enhanced so that layoffs can be avoided?
  • Understand the top priorities and concerns of senior management. Timing is everything when it comes to having a positive impact on the way senior management views your team. Develop an analytic approach to your dealings with top management. Ask yourself what things are important to the organization, what perspectives senior managers have toward organizational priorities, and more specifically, your work team, and which of your priorities or goals have the best chance to be viewed positively at any given moment.

An example
The following scenario addresses some of these approaches to strategic thinking. Juanita is a new LAN administrator who had previously been a technician with another work team in a midsize organization. Although she enjoyed her new position and the management responsibilities, she was feeling a bit frustrated with the "reactive" aspects of her work. It seemed like she was always putting out fires with the LAN and had little opportunity to use her experience and abilities to actually improve work processes or incorporate technological advances into the LAN.

She expressed her frustrations to her mentor, who had been assigned to her when she was promoted. Her mentor acknowledged that her position as LAN administrator could be confining but also challenged Juanita to find ways to make the job more interesting. She advised Juanita to educate herself about the organization's history and priorities, as well as external conditions such as the economy that could affect the organization's health, and determine how her team could be in a position to respond to changing conditions and new challenges.

Juanita took her mentor's advice and began to look at her team and the organization in a more analytic manner. She asked herself what conditions might be present six months and even one year in the future and how her team could be ready to contribute. She finally got her opportunity one day when her supervisor mentioned that the organization was looking for ways the various teams could better communicate with each other.

Juanita had read about a model used by a major corporation to improve communication horizontally within the organization. She brought in the article to show to her supervisor. To her surprise, her supervisor accepted the article with great interest and shared it with his colleagues.

The moral of this story is that Juanita used strategic thinking to view her work beyond the constrained parameters of day-to-day operations and to be in a position to take advantage of an opportunity to contribute to the policy-making process at the top.

Ready for opportunity
Strategic thinkers learn to analyze their work surroundings for potential opportunities and challenges faced by their work teams and organizations. They also learn to be patient and to be sensitive to opportunities to contribute to the way the organization does business.

It is certainly true that IT managers must be responsive to the day-to-day issues that face any LAN system. However, managers can add considerable value to their work by looking outside the box and being prepared to suggest creative ways to help shape and improve workplace policies.

To learn more about strategic thinking in the workplace, take a look at The Strategic Middle Manager: How to Create and Sustain Competitive Advantage by Steven W. Floyd and Bill Wooldridge (1996).

New manager questions
Steven Watson has 10 years of IT management and consulting experience and has developed an understanding of how the issues faced by IT managers differ from those of their nontechnical colleagues. As a new tech manager, do you have a question you’d like him to address? Send it to us via e-mail or post it in the discussion below.


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