Coaching many emerging and established leaders, strategic thinking is one of the most common areas my clients seek help with. Often this is triggered by feedback – “James needs to be less tactical and operational… more strategic.”
When I ask new clients how they would know they had mastered ‘strategic thinking’, I’m often met with a somewhat blank, “I don’t really know”.
And that’s fair enough. Like leadership, strategic thinking is highly desirable but hard to define. A valuable and much needed skill, our managers believe we’ve either got it or we haven’t.
WHAT ‘STRATEGIC THINKING’ MEANS
Although strategy wizards would like us to think otherwise, there’s no magic or rocket science behind it! We have ‘strategies’ for most things we do from cleaning our teeth through to restructuring complex, global companies.
A business strategy is simply a plan for the future. Well thought out, it has clear, desirable outcomes, well-defined goals, actions to achieve them and measures to track progress.
Balancing foresight, innovation and creativity with hindsight and real world pragmatism, strategic planning is a process.
Strategic thinking is the ability to envisage a better future, build a strong bridge from here to there and communicate in a way people understand.
WHY STRATEGIC THINKERS GET AHEAD
Highly skilled strategic thinkers progress rapidly. Their opinions are sought out by those who matter and they influence the future direction of an organisation in a way that most others can’t or don’t.
Strategic thinkers are:
- Visionary – see well beyond the here and now
- Curious Listeners – ask questions to deepen their understanding
- Credible – know what they’re talking about and fully understand their environment
- Solution Focused – view problems as opportunities
- Adaptable and Flexible – build on ideas without losing sight of the ultimate goal
- Influential – engage and build trust with wide-ranging stakeholders
- Dot Joiners – go beyond their area of expertise to connect people with their ideas
Skilled strategic thinkers are offered exciting, high impact roles which act as career springboards. As they successfully create and deliver more complex solutions, their reputation grows.
Recognised for their ability to develop and deliver sound strategies, they are more likely to be head-hunted for exciting projects or plum jobs with progressive companies and negotiate better salaries.
Sounds great, but how do you strengthen your ability to think strategically?
HOW TO BE A STRATEGY NINJA
1. GET OUT OF THE TREES – SEE THE WHOLE FOREST
Be across the detail but not immersed in it. Build the skills of others and trust them with the lower level detail. Constantly remind yourself of the context, ultimate goals and priorities of your organisation. Strategic thinking is focused first on the bigger picture.
- Why are we doing this?
- What difference will achieving this result in?
- What will this mean for us, our customers, partners and others?
2. LOOK AROUND CORNERS – ANTICIPATE POSSIBILITIES AND OPPORTUNITIES
Strategy Ninjas see what others can’t and critically analyse facts, hunches, trends and likelihoods. They present carefully considered ideas and have a knack for developing valuable insights no one else has thought of.
- What could happen if we do Xxxx? What else? (ask this one 5 times)
- If this were to fail, what could happen and how could we avoid this?
- How could we turn this into the best possible opportunity to achieve even more?
3. DEVELOP 50 SHADES OF PERSPECTIVE – CONSIDER ALL POINTS OF VIEW
This is about suspending your judgement and expanding your perspective. Openly consider the views of everyone who will be involved and impacted and know what it will take to implement your ideas. *
- Putting myself in Xxx’s shoes, what do I need to consider?
- If I was a customer/client/partner, how would I react to this idea?
- How would an expert/mentor/competitor approach this?
* This step often trips up even the most experienced strategists. Understanding and acknowledging what it will take to implement your strategy in the real world earns bonus points!
4. GO BEYOND THE OBVIOUS – INNOVATE TO CREATE UNIQUE SOLUTIONS
Doing what we’ve always done, the way we’ve always done it won’t get us to where we need to be. The best solutions are often those which combine seemingly unrelated ideas. For inspiration, research how other industries and sectors have solved similar problems or achieved comparable goals.
- How do successful organisations approach a challenge like this?
- What haven’t we tried before?
- What would I need to do to adapt this idea so it works for us?
5. BE CONSIDERED YET DECISIVE – QUICK THINKING WITH ALL THE FACTS
Backed by strong evidence, the most successful strategists are confident. They thoroughly research their approach, yet are always open to ways it can be improved.
Thorough research and preparation helps them consider new information and make quick decisions.
- How do I know this strategy will succeed?
- What are the most important features of this strategy and why do they matter?
- What could be changed without compromising the desired outcome?
6. KNOW WHO MATTERS – ENGAGE THE INFLUENCERS
Being the lone voice behind a strategy is setting yourself up to fail. You need a team of advocates to help get the right people on board.
While the decision makers and those who are near them on an org chart are important, it’s wise to consider who else they may trust and be influenced by.
- Who are the key decision makers? (Tip: Usually those most impacted by the resulting change or those you need most for your strategy to succeed)
- Who do they know and listen to?
- What matters most to my key decision makers and their influencers and how can I best engage each of them?
7. KEEP IT SIMPLE – MAKE IT MEMORABLE
The best ideas and exciting plans alone won’t build your reputation as a strategic thinker if others can’t understand them. Make your strategy highly relatable and easy for others to grasp what you’re proposing. Use different approaches to build support.
- What are the 3 key points I need people to remember and understand?
- How can I make my strategy compelling and irresistible?
- What picture, story, anecdote or metaphor will help people to ‘get it’?
- How do I adapt my pitch for different audiences?
Strategic thinking isn’t something you’re born with or only for those with ‘Strategy’ in their title!
With practice and coaching, anyone can develop strategic thinking skills to increase their impact and credibility.
What are your best tips for becoming a Strategy Ninja?
Caroline helps mid-career professionals and evolving organisations harness the power of change to achieve success in business, work and life.