How to Become Better at Thinking Strategically

Thinking strategically

What is Strategic Thinking?

If you want to move your team to the next level, you have to be good at thinking strategically. However, in most organizations, everyone is so consumed with daily activities, multi-tasking and busy work that is hard to take a step back and see the bigger picture.

Rich Horwath, in his Strategic Thinking Manifesto, finds that “the most commonly cited strategy challenge is time (96 percent).” He reports that “44 percent of managers spend most of their time firefighting in cultures that reward reactivity and discourage thoughtfulness.”

As well as a lack of time and focus, another reason managers don't prioritize strategic thinking is because it is hard to define. There are many ways to describe the process of strategic thinking – being open minded, thinking out of the box, looking at the big picture, etc.

Forbes says this: “Thinking strategically is the mental process you go through when pondering an open-ended question. It’s best done in a low-stress environment where you can freely think and not be easily distracted. Additionally, it’s important to capture ideas as they come in — by paper, journal, computer, etc.”

The Difference Between Strategic vs. Tactical Thinking

When you think tactically, you are task-oriented. Your focus is on accomplishing daily activities, meeting deadlines, and checking things off your to-do list. However when you think strategically, you focus more on process. You think creatively and forward-looking, in order to achieve long-term success in the future.

How can You Improve Your Strategic Thinking Skills?

What does it take to start thinking strategically? We define a strategic thinker as someone who sees the big picture of future possibility and creates strategic connections leading to competitive advantage. It’s all about possibility and connection and pausing to ask the right questions.

  1. Focus on Future Possibility

    Take time to step back from the day-to-day and focus on the bigger picture. What are your organization’s or team's long-term business goals and what are the best ways to achieve them? Staying up-to-date with industry trends is a great way to understand where things are heading and what you should be doing now to ensure your organization or department can capitalize on them.

  2. Make Strategic Connections

    In addition to staying on top of industry trends, look for connections between them. Look at the way another company is doing something and relate it to your organization. Use these connections as inspiration for what you can implement in your own environment to create positive change.

    To find inspiration, be open to new ideas. For example, learn by reading, visiting other companies, and talking to people in other departments or your broader professional network.

  3. Ask the Right Questions

    As part of the strategic thinking process, stop to ask questions and don’t be afraid to ask the difficult ones. Though you may not find all the answers, you'll develop a better idea of what will work and what won’t work.

4 Things We Do that Endanger Strategic Thinking

  1. Over-Optimism

    We are biased towards being over-optimistic.  If we are successful at achieving something we forecast, we celebrate. If we are successful again, we celebrate more.  We begin to believe we are good at strategic thinking, that what we did caused the future to happen.  We start to think that we've been doing is the only way to do things.  We become immune to looking at new information, and when we receive information that doesn't fit with our beliefs, we discount or reject it.

  2. Under-Optimism

    Under-optimism is the danger of not pushing, not believing in ourselves.  We limit our strategy to minimize losses, avoid mistakes, and our organizations dwindle because of it.   We can guard against under-optimism by committing to try one new thing every year that we've never tried before, without obsessing too much on the risk of failure.

  3. Confirmation Bias

    Everybody exhibits some degree of confirmation bias.  We become certain we're right and won't hear contrary arguments.  We look for information that proves us right at 2-3  times the rate we look for data that might contradict our bias.  When we do find contrary information, we discount it. 

    In business we can guard against confirmation bias by always seeking out feedback from people with a diversity of viewpoints.   If you run a small business - create a network of such people.   Good candidates might be your accountant, your best client, your largest vendor; people that know your business but are not working in it.

  4. Following the Herd

    When we follow the herd, we borrow someone else's strategic thinking.  We play follow the leader.  Our mentality is: They're doing this so we should too.  Our own innovation and opportunities are at stake. 

    The remedy - Don't do it.  Always look for your way of moving forward.

One Way to Check You're Not Doing Them

Ron Crossland suggests the following exercise for ensuring your strategic thinking has not been eroded by any of the four factors listed above:

Divide your team into four groups.  Give each group one category and have them attempt to prove the case that your organization's strategy has been affected by it. Asking them to "prove us wrong" will get them examining all the evidence they normally don't look for.  Crossland says that the evidence that comes back to you will increase the quality of your strategic thinking by factors larger than you can imagine.

Key thought

The key to taking your organization or team to the next level is not only to go through the strategic thinking process, but also to turn that thinking into action. Set measurable goals for your organization and create a strategic plan that will lead you to successfully reach those goals.

More resources

Are You a Strategic Thinker? Test Yourself by Peter Walsh (Harvard Business Publishing)

Building Your Company’s Vision by James Collins & Jerry Porras (Harvard Business Review)

“Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies” by James Collins & Jerry Porras.