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What are the Elements of Strategic Thinking?

Of all the traits an effective leader can have, being a strategic thinker is arguably the most important. This is particularly true as leaders rise to more senior levels within their organizations. A 2013 Management Research Group (MRG) study found that a strategic approach to leadership was, on average, 10 times more important to the perception of effectiveness than other behaviors studied. It was twice as important as communication (the second most important behavior) and almost 50 times more important than hands-on tactical behaviors.

Thinking strategically involves looking not just at the present, but seeing and understanding the future of where the organization needs to go. A true strategic leader takes a broad, long-range approach to problem-solving and decision-making that involves objective analysis, envisioning the future, and planning. The synthesis of all three – analysis, visioning, and planning – are where the strategic leader brings true value.

Leaders who utilize these vital skills are able to work through unknown situations to create that future reality for their company. Along the way, they hone their abilities to reason, learn, and make decisions that enable employees to push forward on a strategic vision in the face of setbacks.

If you’re looking to improve your strategic thinking skills, the good news is that with the right mindset and practice, you can. Here are the key qualities that all strategic thinkers possess:

  • Anticipate major shifts in the marketplace and identify emerging opportunities.
  • Consider the possibilities beyond the “tried and true.”
  • Identify and assign greater importance to ideas with the greatest impact and return.
  • Are best described as “creative” individuals who think outside the box.
  • Know how to work within resource limitations and make tough calls to reach business goals.
  • Create and inspire people to work towards a vision of what’s possible.
  • Motivate by constantly moving their team towards ambitious targets, experimenting, and taking (informed) risks.

Ways to Improve Your Strategic Thinking Skills

Ask Strategic Questions — Lots of Them

If you want to improve your strategic thinking skills, one of the best things you can do is to start asking more strategic questions. Strategic questions can relate to a business challenge, market opportunity, or situational ambiguity you’re currently facing. Some examples of strategic questions you might ask include:

  • What are my organization’s top strategic initiatives for this year?
  • What strategic goals do we want/need to accomplish for the business this year?
  • How can we strategically position ourselves to enter a new market?
  • What is the scope and advantage of my organization’s offering compared to its main competitors?
  • What’s the direction for growth for each of our products or services?
  • Where will the organization’s growth come from in the next five years, and how does it compare with where growth has historically come from?

Seek the Input of Others

Although you hold a leadership position, the onus of strategic thinking doesn’t rest solely on your shoulders. Recruit a diversity of thought by bringing your team and colleagues into the strategy formulation process. Ask them to come to a brainstorming meeting with ideas and suggestions in response to a strategic question you’ve posed. Make an effort to discuss your ideas with different people to gain a wide spectrum of perspectives.

Keep Up with Industry Trends

Keep your finger on the pulse of industry trends. Join professional networks, engage with employees from different teams in your organization, and seek out mentors and experts who can share their own experiences and tips for keeping on top of the most important ideas relevant to your company and industry.

Track what your competitors are doing. Get a clear understanding of how others in your industry are working and get external insights when possible. Proactively monitor the environment to foresee industry shifts so that you can prepare for any emerging threats and opportunities as you see them. You won’t always get it right, but what is important is having an informed point of view based on what you are seeing in the marketplace.

Be A Forward Thinker

Always anticipate and look for new opportunities. What changes need to be made now, in six months, one year or five years from now to keep your business thriving? Anticipate talent, team, organizational and client needs way before they may be evident to others. Easier said than done, and a required default modus operandi for the strategic leader.

Dig Deeper

Strategic thinkers look at challenges from a number of different perspectives before deciding on the best path forward. Focus on what you can learn from available data, current and past trends. Look at problems through the lens of feelings (yours and others), use your intuition and emotion, in addition to the data. Look for weak points and think about how to create contingency plans to counter them. Use your creativity to generate out-of-the-box ideas and create optionality.

Play Devil’s Advocate

Once you’ve established a strategy that can help your organization reach its goals, question your assumptions, and put your hypothesis through rigorous testing. By doing so, you can ensure you’re not overlooking other possibilities. Get in the habit of checking yourself any time you’re about to make an assertion. What different perspectives should you consider? Where might there be another possibility you may have overlooked?

Be Hands-off

It’s difficult to focus on the future goals of your organization when you’re busy overseeing the day-to-day tasks of your employees. Micromanaging is a hard habit to break, but getting mired in the day-to-day details is a huge roadblock to strategic thinking. Empower your team to make decisions and let them learn from their mistakes. This will also help you create the white space you need to think about the bigger picture for your business.

Keep Learning

Competitive leaders know that learning can never stop. Seek out knowledge and new skills – always. Be humble enough to learn from others as well as confident enough to teach others. Strategic thinking skills are developed by committing to constant learning and self-improvement. Whether it’s learning from your own experiences, the experiences of others, books, presentations, networks, or conferences, seek out potential sources of learning that will help you find an ‘angle’ (i.e. think about your business in a new way).

Everyone can sharpen their strategic thinking skills. An excellent way to begin is by asking more strategy-based questions about your company’s business and through more formal development of your strategic thinking. Copperbox has helped organizations in a range of industries cultivate strategic thinkers into strategic leaders. Please contact us to learn how we can help develop a team of strategic thinkers and leaders within your organization.

Wayland K. Lum is the Founder and Managing Director of Copperbox. You can learn about Wayland’s work with leaders at www.copperbox.co, and connect with him at wayland@copperbox.co.

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