One of the things that always frustrated me in my professional experience was my difficulty in switching from tactical to strategic thinking. For many years, I served on a board that was responsible for the strategic direction of an organization. A friend of mine, Andy Freed, served as an advisor to the board. He constantly lectured us on the difference between strategy and tactics: “Strategy is your job. Tactics are mine. Stick to your job and I’ll stick to mine.”
Despite this constant reminder, our discussions always seemed to quickly spiral down to the tactical level. We all caught ourselves doing it. It seemed that as soon as we started thinking about what needed to be done and why, we automatically shifted gears and thought about how it should be done.
A recent study may have found the problem. We were sitting down. We should have stood up.
Better yet, we should have taken the elevator to the top of the building (we actually did do this at one board retreat in Scottsdale, Ariz.).
Two researchers at the University of Toronto (home, I should point out, of what was the tallest free-standing structure in the world for many years: the CN Tower), Pankaj Aggarwal and Min Zhao, found that a subject’s physical situation affected how strategic they were. When subjects were physically higher up, say standing on a tall stool, they were more likely to look at the “big picture.”
Our physical context has more than a little impact on how we think. It’s a phenomenon called Mental Construal. And it’s not just restricted to how strategic our thinking is. It can impact things like social judgment as well. In a 2006 paper, University of Michigan professor Norbert Schwarz gave some examples that fall under the category called “situated concepts.” For example, the mental images you retrieve when I say “chair” might be different if we’re standing in a living room rather than an airplane or movie theater. Another example, which unfortunately speaks to a darker side of human nature, is how you would respond to the face of a young African-American when shown in the context of a church scene versus the context of a street corner scene.
Schwartz also talks about levels of construal. We’re more successful staying at strategic levels when our planning is trouble-free. The minute we hit a problem, we tend to revert to finer-grained tactical thinking. Again, in my board experience, the minute we started hitting problems we immediately tried to solve them, which effectively derailed any strategic discussion.
In his book "Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention," Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that physical contexts can also impact creativity. Physicist Freeman Dyson, known, according to Wikipedia, for presenting the work of another physicist, Richard Feynman, "in a form that other physicists could understand," found that walking with Feynman was essential to drive the creative process. “Again, I never went to a class that [Richard] Feynman taught. I never had any official connection with him at all, in fact. But we went for walks. Most of the time that I spent with him was actually walking, like the old style of philosophers who used to walk around under the cloisters.”
In a study where subjects were given pagers and were signaled at random times of the day, they were asked to rate how creative they felt. It turned out the highest level of creativity came while they were walking, driving or swimming. Perhaps it was the physical stimulation, but it may have also been mental construal at work. Perhaps physical movement primed the brain for mental movement.
So, if you need to be strategic, find the highest vantage point possible, with room to walk around, preferably with the smartest person you know.