Strategic thinking isn't a one-time activity—it's a way of life. Learn how to overcome the fears that can get in the way of thinking strategically and how to ask the right questions of yourself and others to spark insights.
- We spend a lot of our lives being told what to do. You're not going to do very well in grade school if you're constantly questioning the teacher and asking, why are we doing it this way, wouldn't it be easier to do it this other way? So it can be hard to rewire ourselves once we graduate and enter the work world. In fact, for quite a while, it doesn't even seem necessary. What you're praised for and promoted for in the early days is being able to master tasks quickly and execute what you're told to do. Write that report according to the standard format. Check.
Design that PowerPoint. Process that customer claim. Get that mailing out the door. Check, check, check. But your success at doing what you're told is actually misleading. It's great in the early days but if you keep doing it, your career is going to stagnate, stall and eventually decline. As the famed executive coach Marshall Goldsmith says, "what got you here won't get you there." What's useful in the early part of your career and absolutely mandatory later on is the ability to embrace strategic thinking.
It's mandatory for leaders and a skill you have to cultivate. So how do you do it? First of all, it's important to be clear. It's not a one time activity where you create a strategy and follow it forever. Because conditions change, your strategy needs to change with it and that means strategic thinking, re-evaluating new information and adapting accordingly needs to become an ongoing way of life. To cultivate the strategic mindset, think about how you can leverage the following activities.
First is questioning assumptions. Why do we do it that way? It's a question every five year old asks 100 times a day which let's be honest is incredibly annoying but when we stop asking those questions, most people go to the opposite extreme. They hardly question anything at all. If you can interrogate habits and practices in a targeted way, you can often uncover new ideas and efficiencies that others simply have never thought about. Why are we filling out two forms? Couldn't they actually be combined? Wouldn't orientation be more efficient if the second half took place in a field office? Whatever it is, sometimes asking targeted questions can unlock great potential.
Next is observing. So much of modern corporate life is about doing, about moving faster, quicker, making more things happen. Of course, there's a place for that but that bias means we're also missing opportunities on the other end. If we spend all our time doing, it means we're not really in a position to observe others whom we can learn from or ourselves which means we can't properly refine what we're doing. Even more critically, we're not observing the big picture, the macrotrends and the way the pieces of organizational life fit together.
Seeing that, seeing what others aren't even looking at often can give you unique insights about where and how you and your company can gain a strategic advantage. Finally, there's reflecting. For my book Stand Out, I interviewed David Allen, a productivity guru and the author of Getting Things Done. He told me something interesting. To have a breakthrough idea, it doesn't take time. It takes space. What he meant was that a sparkling insight can happen in an instant.
We've all experienced that sometimes but it happens too rarely because we're too busy and too preoccupied to let it happen. We have to clear the decks mentally and that means learning to be present and reflect on what we've experienced, kick around new ideas and sit with our thoughts. That's how creativity happens. Questioning assumptions, observing and reflecting are how we can begin to adopt the mindset of strategic thinking.
- Embracing the strategic mindset
- Making time
- Learning from the past
- Getting details right
- Strategic thinking with a team
- Measuring success