I love a coaching brief looking at how to help someone “develop their strategic thinking”, because in my twenties this was the feedback I was given too. At the time it felt like a doom-laden comment: no one could explain to me what I was doing “wrong” but this mysterious thing – “strategic thinking” – was missing. If you get this lobbed at you, then this article might be for you.
What is Strategic Thinking?
It is the ability to connect data, insights and ideas to create some kind of advantage in the future. It involves stepping back, to be able to see the whole picture, and to make the links between often disparate things to help create a desired outcome.
If you are given this feedback, then ask the following questions of your line manager:
- What do you mean by strategic thinking?
- Can you give me an example of good strategic thinking in the business?
- In my current role, how would you expect me to demonstrate my strategic thinking? What would you see me saying and doing?
- Who do you think is really good at this in the business and why?
- How can you help me develop this skill?
Armed with this insight, you can apply the framework of the 3 Ts of strategic thinking to better understand where to focus to develop your strategic thinking.
How do you THINK strategically?
If you were given a whole day to think strategically, what you would do? What is the key strategic challenge that your role needs to address? If we consider the definition of strategic thinking (of connecting data, insights and ideas to create some kind of advantage in the future), we might start with:
“Create some kind of advantage in the future”:
- What does this mean in relation to your role, department and business?
- Where are you now? And where do you want to get to be in the future?
- What is your vision?
And then “connect data, insights and ideas”. Where can you get data, insights and ideas from? Maybe look outside your world. I saw John Hegarty (one of the founders of BBH, the advertising agency) talk about how he always read the Economist – not an obvious pursuit for a Creative Director in advertising. However, seeking ideas and insights from different sources of knowledge helps. If all your peers are reading the Harvard Business Review, then seek out different sources.
The PESTLE model helps to shape your outside thinking. What are the political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental factors that will influence what you are trying to do? This framework helps to articulate the opportunities and threats that may influence your vision.
Within your business – listen, understand and share thinking with your colleagues from different departments. They will have different insights based on their experiences that provides a wider context to your thinking. So, if you work in sales, talk to the finance team. What are the big issues that are concerning the finance team, and how do these influence what you are doing?
How much TIME do you spend thinking strategically?
I coached an individual recently, someone who is strategic but the busyness of their role has stopped them focusing on it – and so it is not showing through in their work. If your role is execution-focused, then your attention is inevitably on the day-to-day work, rather than on the bigger picture. It will therefore be easy for you to come across as not strategic. Consider:
- How much time do you spend working and thinking on the strategic elements of your role?
- And what is the right balance between the strategic elements vs. the day to day?
Strategic thinking requires time, particularly as you develop this muscle in the brain.
How do you TALK strategically?
When you are talking, do you communicate with others strategically? In a meeting, notice where your communication is focused. Do you naturally go for the detail? Or are you able to step back and look at what is going on? I encourage my coachees to observe a meeting and see who talks strategically and see where the focus of each person’s conversation is with the focus model. There are 5 levels of focus:
- Vision – Why do we need to do this? What is the purpose? What is our desired future? What is success here?
- Strategy – Once you know where you are heading, you need to know how you are going to get there. What are the key initiatives that you need to put in place to succeed?
- Detail – This is simply the detail behind the strategy – the detail of doing. What are we going to do to make this happen?
- Problem – What is going wrong? How are we going to solve this problem?
- Drama – This is the place where vision, strategy, detail and problem-solving have fallen apart, and only the emotions are left. Sometimes it is understandable (for example, if we lose a large piece of business). But once the emotions are worked through, we need to move on.
There is a role for all of these levels of focus, but if you want to be perceived as a strong strategic thinker, ensure that you are spending time in the vision and strategy focus areas, and not just in the detail and problems. Strong strategic thinkers are able to synthesize and chunk their ideas up into the key headlines and themes.
Ironically, developing a strategy to develop your strategic thinking can be the biggest contributor towards your future success. The 3 Ts of strategic thinking can provide a pathway to doing that.
Photo credit: Alex Read @Unsplash