As executive coaches, we often work with clients on developing strategic thinking skills for themselves and their team members. It’s an essential and often underdeveloped skill in today’s short-term, performance-based business environment. Leaders must make time for focused strategic thinking on a regular basis and introduce strategic thinking into daily interactions at more levels within their organization.
Strategic thinking and strategic planning are different yet both are important. Many organizations do well with a regular planning process but most could do more to develop strategic thinkers and leaders. While not quick and easy, it’s very possible to instill strategic thinking skills using these five techniques:
Observe your employees
Leaders often need to do more assessing of their current organization, culture, product, technology and/or business model. Tools such as Galbraith’s STAR model, a SWOT model and Design Thinking techniques for innovation, can help. But more simply, and potentially more powerfully, leaders can become more actively curious and observant through ethnography.
Ask questions like:
- “How does work really get done around here?”
- “What works well and why? What doesn’t?”
- “Do we know what our customers really think about us?”
- “What values are displayed most often?”
- “Do employees understand our mission and strategic priorities and connect them with their work?”
Break your daily routine and watch others, pop into other’s team meetings, visit customers and the competition, use your products, etc. You’ll learn new information which will spark more strategic questions and thinking.
Create thinking space
Encourage leaders to set aside time alone for strategic thinking/planning at least monthly, if not weekly. Use this time to reflect, research, ideate and dream, not to “do” things. Some leaders, given this assignment, need a little help to productively use the time. But once they start this practice, they cherish the time and guard it protectively. Getting outside or into a new physical space can make this time more effective. Add a new dimension by pairing with a valued thought-partner or small group. Leaders report this practice helps them become more strategic in their thinking as well as less stressed and more engaged.
Employ new ways of thinking and learning
We like these three strategic thinking skills the best and use them often:
Divergent and convergent thinking
Divergent thinking imagines the future, any possibility, in any direction and deliberately diverges from the conventional while suspending criticism and judgment; the result is an abundance of ideas, even wild ones. Convergent thinking narrows down options to one or more preferred choices through analysis, criticism, logic, argument and reasoning; less attractive possibilities are eliminated in order to choose and create a path forward.
The two styles of thinking are very powerful when used sequentially and effective ideation processes consist of both. Try not to mix these styles as doing so can stifle creativity, leaving you with only safe options. The challenge is usually to foster more divergent thinking.
Zoom In/Zoom Out
We often hear feedback like “he gets stuck in the weeds” and less often “her head is in the clouds, not in reality.” A leader’s view of the world can help or hinder his or her ability to make good strategic decisions. Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s “Zoom In/Zoom Out”/a> metaphor is a powerful way to think about how you think. Zooming in affords a close look at details, but if too close it can be difficult to make sense of them. Zooming out offers the big picture, but perhaps misses some nuances. Each should be vantage points, not fixed positions. To think more strategically, try zooming out more – it’s essential to big-picture decision-making. When your view is wide you can map a whole territory before taking action. Look for general patterns rather than getting stuck on individual events. Notice similar situations and root causes. Effective leaders both zoom in and zoom out for a complete picture.
Develop the Top of Your “T”
“T-Shaped” leaders are interdisciplinary: they are broad and deep thinkers, curious and empathetic about other people’s disciplines. The horizontal part of the “T” represents breadth of understanding connections across a business and/or industry. The vertical part of the “T” represents depth of understanding and expertise in a particular business area.
The whole “T” represents both deep functional expertise and broad business knowledge and acumen. To be more strategic, ask, “What other experiences/perspectives do I need to be more T-shaped?” By developing the top of your “T” the opportunity and ability to borrow and mash ideas increases, resulting in new strategies.
Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.
Communicate a well-articulated strategy throughout the entire organization. Understanding the broader organizational strategy helps employees incorporate it into their work. If the organization strategy is not clear—ask. Or worst-case, create one for your part of the organization.
An effective way to communicate strategy is with a “Strategic Narrative.” Good narrative tells who we are now, defines current challenges and opportunities and delivers a compelling resolution spelling out what strategic success means on a personal and organizational basis. The narrative should connect to personal and organizational narratives and not stand in isolation of an organization’s history.
Notice, value and reward strategic thinking
Publicly praise strategic thinking and actions, with specifics. Applaud those who quickly generate several solutions to a problem and who identify the solution with the greatest long-term benefit, or who anticipate opportunities and avoid problems. Too often praise goes to those who gave up a vacation to solve a one- off problem, or who ‘heroically’ slaved for weeks prior to the launch of a new product. Instead, highlight those who create ways for work to get planned and done more efficiently. Use highly-strategic colleagues as mentors. Include metrics for strategic thinking in performance management. Highlight strategic thinking in lower level positions – it’s not just a senior leadership skill.
Becoming more strategic takes practice and continuity. Honing this skill makes the difference between an average and an exceptional leader – and organization.