The greatest thing in this world is not so much where we stand as in what direction we are moving.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“Strategy” is one of the most used and abused corporate buzzwords. People who use it often feel it adds an extra level of importance to their projects and actions.
While managers of all companies, big or small, are expected to show strategic leadership, many don’t really understand what that really means.
In fact, many businesses fail to capitalize on market opportunities for this exact reason: management’s lack of strategic thinking skills.
Strategy and Strategic Thinking
There should be nothing complicated and intimidating about strategy.
Strategy means having a goal, a plan and timeline to reach it, and the determination to stick to it.
Strategy means looking before immediate needs, towards how today’s actions will affect the “big picture”. It’s about saying no to today’s temptations that are not in line with “the plan”.
The benefits of strategic thinking go beyond the business world. In fact, it is a skill we can apply to almost all aspects of our daily lives.
You are actually using your strategic thinking skills more than you realize.
Let’s take those of us who have kids. We all want our kids to live a physically, mentally, and financially fulfilling life.
Achieving this very powerful goal is only possible without thinking strategically and having a plan.
If you let your kids watch TV or play video games all day long, the chances of them developing any interest in learning and being physically active are pretty slim.
To succeed, you need to plan and allocate time for reading and writing, playing outdoors, and meeting family and friends.
Furthermore, you also have to think of saving money for their university, starting when they are little. You also need to take them traveling so they discover the world and get a different perspective on life.
This is strategic thinking in action.
Tips On Improving Your Strategic Thinking Skills
In business, those who think strategically are able to anticipate market trends, predict new needs, and be first to develop products to satisfy them. They are able to be one step ahead of the competition, anticipate their moves and respond accordingly.
Here are some tips on how to improve your strategic thinking:
Have a Purpose
It sounds cliché, but there’s no way around it: the motivator behind thinking strategically is a powerful goal. In order words you need to know where you want to go, and be determined to get there.
In a famous speech at Stanford University, Steve Jobs said: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “no” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
Start With The End in Mind
At the beginning of each project ask yourself: what do I want to achieve? What is the desired result of my actions? Think of the ultimate goal, not the steps in between.
Let’s say you’ve been assigned to manage a website design project. Listing “mobile friendly and modern looking website” as project goal displays a lack of strategic thinking. From a strategic perspective, your end goal for this project should be to help you sell more products, or generate more leads.
Seek Expertise From Outside Your Industry
One of the requirements that frustrate job seekers who are looking for a career change is “must have industry experience”. Meaning, the employer is only interested in candidates who currently work for the competition.
The strategy of stealing people from competition is partly responsible for the lack of innovation and differentiation within most categories. People who move from company to company within the same industry want to do things the same way they’ve always done it.
Strategic thinkers seek and embrace perspectives that “don’t fit the mould”. In most cases these unique ideas come from people who are not directly involved in the industry.
Avoid Daily Distractions
One of the biggest challenges we face today is finding time to think. Technology made us more connected, but also more distracted. We are able to multitask, but for no meaningful purpose.
Strategy requires focus for long periods.
Our computer and digital devices are the principal source of distractions, and, in order to think strategically, we need to reduce them to a minimum. If you are looking for inspiration on how to focus more by avoiding distractions, this excellent post by Nir Eyal will certainly help.
Pursue an Interest in Liberal Arts Education
One way to get better at what we do is to learn as much as we can about our particular field. While this strategy will make you a specialist in your field, it will not necessarily improve your strategic thinking skills.
Liberal arts teach us the fundamental skills applicable to any profession: how to write effectively, how to get our points across, and how to nurture your creativity. All these are fundamental skills that will make you better regardless of your profession, and improve your strategic thinking.
Find Time to Think
“Busy” is the number one excuse for not getting important things done, one that is often hide the inability to manage one’s professional and personal lives. Being constantly “busy” is the number one enemy of strategic thinking.
How many times have you left the office at the end of a busy day feeling you haven’t accomplished anything meaningful?
We often focus on things and situations that are urgent, concrete, and need our immediate attention, and rarely find time to work on this that make the biggest impact on our long-term plans.
Strategic thinking requires a conscious effort to detach yourself from the daily routine and stop responding to every stimulus.
A great strategic mind understands that in order to get something, you need to give up something else. You can’t get fit and healthy without giving up on junk food. You can’t launch your small business without giving up on your personal time.
Every sound strategy requires a tradeoff, and unfortunately not many business leaders are willing to accept them.
Examples abound: Blackberry chasing the consumer market. Dell abandoning its simple business model: one product (computers), one distribution channel (online, directly to consumer). And so on.
Surround Yourself With People Smarter Than You
You’re probably familiar with the saying “If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the room.”
Narcissists usually make for terrible strategists, as they have a hard time accepting suggestions that make them feel weak, and love making every decision and following up on every action item.
And yet, the path to personal and professional growth is to listen and learn from others, and embrace their view even if it differs from yours.
Strategic thinking is a very powerful and sought-after skill acquired through training and experience.
Mastering it will have a huge impact on your personal and professional success. You will be able to respond to changes happening around you, improve your confidence and posses a valuable skill set you can apply in most professions.