How to become a Strategic Thinker?

Jul 09, 2014

How to become a Strategic Thinker?

The phrase “We must think strategically” is one of the most common phrases used in the business world. The irony here is that not many people really understand the role of a strategic thinker, which is why it can be such a tough job to do! In addition most senior managers and leaders are unable to resist the temptation to continually think about the present, focusing on what’s immediately in front of them, rather than taking the time to consider the organisations furure. 

So with that in mind, how do you become a strategic thinker? What are the habits you need to adopt?

According to Paul J. H. Schoemaker, published in INC. (An entrepreneurial magazine), there are 6 habits that allow for excellent strategic thinking:

Anticipate - Most companies focus on what's directly ahead. The leaders lack "peripheral vision." This can leave a company vulnerable to rivals who detect and act on ambiguous signals. To anticipate well, you must:

          - Look for game-changing information at the periphery of your industry
          - Search beyond the current boundaries of your business
          - Build fare reaching external networks to help you scan the horizon better

Think Critically - "Conventional wisdom" opens you to fewer raised eyebrows and second guessing. But if you swallow every management trend, accept the status quo and take everything at face value; your company loses all competitive advantage. Critical thinkers question everything. To master this skill you must force yourself to:

          - Reframe problems to get to the bottom of things, in terms of root causes
          - Challenge current beliefs and mind-sets, including your own
          - Uncover hypocrisy, manipulation, and bias in organisational decisions

Interpret - Ambiguity is unsettling. Faced with it, the temptation is to reach for a fast (and potentially wrongheaded) solution.  A good strategic leader holds steady, interpreting information from various sources before developing a viewpoint. To excel at this you have to:

          - Seek patterns in multiple sources of data
          - Encourage others to do the same
          - Question prevailing assumptions and test multiple hypotheses simultaneously

Decide - Many leaders fall prey to "analysis paralysis." In simple terms, this means over-thinking a situation, so that a decision or action is never taken. To avoid this you have to develop processes, trust them and enforce them, so that you arrive at a "good enough" decision. To do this well, you have to:

          - Carefully frame the decision to get to the core of the matter
          - Balance speed, rigor, quality and agility. Leave perfection to higher powers
          - Take a stand even with incomplete information and amid diverse views     

Align - Total consensus within a team or organisation is rare. A strategic leader must foster open dialogue, build trust and engage key stakeholders, especially when views diverge.  To do that you must:

          - Understand what drives other people's agendas, including what remains hidden
          - Bring tough issues to the surface, even when it's uncomfortable
          - Assess risk tolerance and follow through to build the necessary support

Learn - As your company grows, honest feedback is harder and harder to acquire.  You have to do what you can to keep it coming. This is crucial because success and failure (especially failure) are valuable sources of organisational learning.  To install a culture of learning you must:

          - Encourage and exemplify honest, rigorous debriefs to extract lessons
          - Change course quickly if you realise you're off track
          - Celebrate both success and (well-intentioned) failures that provide insight


A great case study for these habits is Howard D. Schultz who is an American businessman. He is best known as the chairman and CEO of Starbucks. The video below offers a unique insight into how thinking strategically allowed Starbucks to not just succeed, but to change, evolve and dominate the market.


If you would like to further develop your strategic thinking skills here are two LMC suggested courses:

M59 Strategy and Organisational Planning

SM90 Strategic Management for Directors and Senior Managers

I look forward to reading your thoughts and comments. I am going to get my coffee!


Michael Kay

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