Imagine a boat is headed out of harbor and it’s filled with a ton of great people who have a ton of confidence about where the ship is headed. Everyone knows the ship is going somewhere great… but no one actually knows where that is. So, people start taking on different assumptions and eventually no one on the ship seems to agree on the ship’s eventual port.
Organizations often get into a variety of these same situations when they don’t have a clearly defined strategy or the strategy isn’t communicated to employees well. To help save another team from this tragedy, we’re introducing you to strategic thinking and providing a few tips for sharpening up this skill for great leadership!
- What is strategic thinking?
- Strategic thinking skills
- 10 tips for improving your strategic thinking skills
- How to apply strategic thinking skills to real-world situations
What is strategic thinking?
Strategic thinking is less about the things that you want to get done and more about the direction in which you’re heading. View strategic thinking as the overarching plan, including the “why” for the plan being in place, and the general end goal that you’d like to achieve.
In strategic thinking, there are no details yet on how you’re exactly going to get there. Tactical thinking, which complements strategic thinking, is all about the “how” and specific steps that you’ll take to achieve the strategy.
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Strategic thinking skills
Before you can identify a strategy for a solution, you’ll need to be great at problem identification. When you have a really solid idea of what caused the issue, you’ll be much better at implementing a strategy that mitigates the root cause. You can do this solo or as part of a team problem-solving exercise.
Strategic thinking is a skill that’s more often required of leaders, rather than individual contributors. This is so the team has a set direction to aim projects toward. Other leadership skills include empathy, transparency, strong communication, planning, and time management.
Being able to communicate effectively is necessary to ensure that your vision is properly articulated to your team. If the rest of your colleagues can’t see the same vision you’re seeing, they’re going to struggle to align with it.
As you implement your strategy through the development of tactical plans, you’ll want to continuously monitor and optimize your plan based on the results. Mid-way through implementation, you might even have to change your strategy! This is totally normal, and a great sign that you’re paying attention to what’s really working.
10 tips for improving your strategic thinking skills
- Learn how to stay relevant with industry trends
- Ask for constructive feedback
- Contribute your ideas
- Always look for ways to improve
- Have a growth mindset
- Take strategic risks
- Be proactive in planning for the future
- Take more initiative
- Be purpose driven
- Take advantage of opposing views
1Learn how to stay relevant with industry trends
Strategies change on the fly as the world you’re working in changes, too. Staying up to date with industry trends allows you to see where your customers are, what new opportunities can help you develop a competitive advantage, and even how you can optimize your team for better productivity. Some ways to get industry insights include signing up for a newsletter from an industry leader, checking the news, or reading the LinkedIn profiles of connections you have in the industry.
2Ask for constructive feedback
Constructive feedback is what helps people continuously improve within their roles. It’s important to note that constructive feedback can suggest areas for improvement and include a discussion about things that didn’t go so well. But, at all times, this feedback should be delivered with kindness and empathy.
If you’re unsure how to integrate constructive feedback into your workflow, consider making a point for it at the start of your meeting. Fellow, a meeting management tool for busy teams, even has a specific feature to remind you to ask for feedback frequently!
3Contribute your ideas
You were hired for a reason! Even if strategic thinking is new to you, you likely have some insightful thoughts stored away in your head that can help a manager optimize their strategic direction. You can also take this opportunity to work with your manager on building strategic thinking skills off of your new idea. Add it as a point to your meeting agenda to see how they can help!
Nina Bowman at Harvard Business Review had a great thought on this, saying,
“Your leaders want to know what you think, and they view your worthiness for promotion through the lens of how ready you are to make bigger decisions.”
4Always look for ways to improve
As you flex your strategic thinking skills, you’ll continue to improve on them. At first it can be hard to think strategically, so you might need to be open to a conversation with mentors in your line of work who can help you with idea generation. Try to get feedback on what has worked well for them and then apply those insights to your work. As you test, you’ll begin to develop your knowledge base for applying strategic thinking to your role!
5Have a growth mindset
Having a growth mindset means continuously looking for ways to improve and never feeling like you’re done learning. Even though a growth mindset is an essential skill to being a great strategic thinker, we’re not born with this mindset—it’s something you have to earn and constantly work on. Frequently ask for feedback from colleagues and management on ways to improve and then build yourself a plan for how you can integrate this feedback into your work.
6Take strategic risks
If you’re working in a small company or paving the path for a new role or project, you might not have a ton of data to back up your strategy recommendations. In these cases, you’ll have to take calculated risks. You can try to find other data, either from within your company or from an industry connection, that can help inform a hypothesis that is worth testing. Make sure that with any risk, you’re aware of the level of risk involved and any potential impacts it might have beyond just loss of return on investment (ROI).
7Be proactive in planning for the future
As you’re learning and building knowledge around strategic planning, be sure to track this information. It can help you analyze patterns and be able to make great plans in the future. The further out you’re able to plan, the better your team will be able to envision the far-away goal. Then, your team will be better at making decisions that align with that bigger picture you’ve envisioned!
8Take more initiative
If your gut feeling says you need to start doing more, taking more risks, trying a new process, or experimenting with a new way of working, go for it! In most companies, your manager is more likely to appreciate that you’re taking initiative rather than sitting around waiting for directions. Showing initiative is also a quality of a great leader, so frequently being willing to take control of a project and providing positive results might help you scale the career ladder faster.
9Be purpose driven
If you don’t have a purpose, then what’s the point? When getting buy-in from your executive team, you’ll need to provide proof of why you’re choosing to pursue a given strategy. In the best-case scenario, you’ll have some data to back up your claims. If you don’t have data from your internal databases, try looking for industry data, competitor actions, and conversations in industry networking groups. Ideally, your strategy will also tie back to supporting the organization’s overarching goals as well.
10Take advantage of opposing views
The fastest way to learn is to expose yourself to differing perspectives. Hearing how others think and perceive the world, or even the projects that you’re collaborating on, will help you improve your strategic thinking. With knowledge of how other teams function, you can create strategic plans that are considerate and complementary to the goals and processes of those around you. This makes you much more likely to get buy-in and also makes it more likely that your strategy will be a success!
How to apply strategic thinking skills to real-world situations
- Consider who is relevant to your work. For example, if you’d like to become a top-selling car salesman, one strategy might be to appeal to business owners who need to purchase multiple cars for their company’s fleet. An alternative strategy you could take is appealing to affluent parents who are ready to purchase multiple family cars.
- Think about the time investment. If competitors are moving slowly on product releases, you might choose a strategy of being the fastest product builders around to help your business differentiate.
- Make sure it’s realistic. For example, a high school student looking to get into a top university might focus on getting a sports scholarship as a strategy, rather than only relying on top grades. But if you’ve never played sports before, this probably isn’t likely to get you into a top school within a year or two.
Strategic thinking is a fantastic skill for anyone to work on, whether you’re an individual contributor or in management. Developing this skill is an always-on process, and it needs to drive all of your thoughts and actions to make the most of it.
If you’re feeling empowered after reading this article, and ready to take on more knowledge about how to improve your leadership qualities at work, try also reading this article on setting and scoring objectives and key results (OKRs)!