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Use Strategic Thinking to Create the Life You Want

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Rainer Strack, Susanne Dyrchs, and Allison Bailey for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit:  Vanessa Branchi

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Here are seven questions that can clarify what really matters to you.

In times of crisis, many of us ponder existential questions about health, security, purpose, career, family, and legacy. However, more often than not, such contemplation is short-lived. The demands of everyday life — the here and now — can overwhelm us, leaving little time to think about the long term and what we are working toward. As a result, when faced with life decisions both big and small, we are left with nothing to guide us but emotion or intuition.

The corporate equivalent, of course, is attempting to run a business without a strategy, which every HBR reader knows is a losing proposition. But as longtime consultants to organizations around the world, we wondered: Could we adapt the model for strategic thinking that we use with institutional clients to help individuals design better futures for themselves? The answer is yes, and the result is a program that we call Strategize Your Life. We’ve tested it with more than 500 people — including students, young professionals, middle-aged employees and managers, C-suite executives, board members, and retirees — to help them develop their individual life strategies.

You can create a life strategy at any time, but it can feel especially appropriate at certain milestones — a school graduation, the start of your first job, a promotion, becoming an empty-nester, retiring — or after a major life event, such as a health scare, a divorce, the loss of a job, a midlife crisis, or the death of a loved one. When you have a strategy, you will be better able to navigate all those transitions and difficult moments, building resilience and finding more joy and fulfilment while minimizing stress. This article will help you get started.

A Surprising Symmetry

Every corporate strategy project is different. But the hundreds that we’ve conducted for large organizations have had commonalities, including the use of certain methodologies and tools. We typically work through seven steps, each guided by a question:

  1. How does the organization define success?
  2. What is our purpose?
  3. What is our vision?
  4. How do we assess our business portfolio?
  5. What can we learn from benchmarks?
  6. What portfolio choices can we make?
  7. How can we ensure a successful, sustained change?

These steps can be easily adapted to an individual:

    1. How do I define a great life?
    2. What is my life purpose?
    3. What is my life vision?
    4. How do I assess my life portfolio?
    5. What can I learn from benchmarks?
    6. What portfolio choices can I make?
    7. How can I ensure a successful, sustained life change?

As the former head of strategy for a U.S.-based Fortune 50 company told us, “Knowing the right questions is much harder than having the answers.” Just as corporate strategy is an integrated set of choices that positions a company to win, life strategy is an integrated set of choices that positions a person to live a great life. What’s more, we can apply tools from classic organizational strategy and other realms to help you find answers to the seven questions above and make better decisions.

Critics might say that you can’t transfer concepts from business to life. In the 1960s there were similar concerns about whether strategy ideas from the military and politics could apply to the corporate world. The management guru Peter Drucker even changed the title of his 1964 book from Business Strategy to Managing for Results because everyone he and his publisher asked told them that strategy belonged to those realms, not to business. Yet we’ve also seen business-world principles employed to improve people’s self-management. For example, in their best-selling book Designing Your Life, Stanford University’s Bill Burnett and Dave Evans modified the design thinking they used in software development to help individuals.

Strategize Your Life is our attempt to do the same for strategic thinking in a concrete, step-by-step way. We believe it can lead you to new insights on how you define and find your great life. Our goal is to give your emotion and intuition an analytical partner.

In surveying our workshop and coaching session participants, we found that, in the past, only 21% had outlined what a great life means to them, 9% had identified their purpose, 12% had set a vision for their life, 17% had created concrete goals and milestones, and a paltry 3% had developed what could be called a life strategy. These are critically important issues that very few of us are spending enough time on.

As Martha, a 26-year-old graduate student, explained, “Life keeps taking shape… When all the Christmas parties and weddings and trips are suddenly over, you ask yourself, ‘Have I really lived or has life just happened to me?’” She was eager to be more proactive. “What better help is there than a high-level plan for life?” she asked. “Not to strictly follow it and forbid life to unfold, but to have a common thread. What should my story be? What should I have experienced so that in the end I can say to myself, ‘I have lived’?”

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Here is a direct linkto the complete article.


Rainer Strack is a senior partner emeritus and a senior adviser at BCG, where he built up and led the global People Strategy topic for 10 years. In 2014 he gave a widely watched TED talk on the global workforce crisis. He formerly coheaded the Future of Work initiative for the World Economic Forum, and in 2021 he was inducted into Personalmagazin’s HR Hall of Fame. He is a fellow of the BCG Henderson Institute.
Susanne Dyrchs is an executive adviser, a coach, and a people strategy expert. She is also a BCG U faculty member and a coauthor of numerous publications on organizations, leadership, and talent. She has written a personal account of her transformational journey, Wir-Zeit [Us Time], which was published in 2021.
Allison Bailey is a senior partner and a managing director at BCG. She leads the firm’s People & Organization practice globally and is a coauthor of several publications on the future of work, the bionic company, digital learning, and upskilling. She is also a fellow of the BCG Henderson Institute.




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