I’m working with a client who wants to increase his capacity for strategic thinking. As a first step, I provided some clarity around the term so that he could understand how and what he needed to develop in order to improve his strategic thinking abilities.

“Strategic thinking” cannot be neatly summed up in one or two lines because it entails a set of capabilities to meet a specific goal. And the goal of strategic thinking is to determine the direction for your line-of-business or organization. Strategic thinking can be described by these activities:

  • Considering external trends and developments, those of today and what might be in the future
  • Seeing patterns and connections among ideas and actions, both within and outside of your department or organization
  • Evaluating the implications a dynamic environment has for your department or organization
  • Making decisions to support the success of your department or organization amidst change, even when faced with ambiguity or uncertainty

This is in sharp contrast to the activities we are usually responsible for when we first start our professional careers and that we are rewarded for, such as completing tasks, fixing problems, and reacting to crises. As we move into leadership positions, we must shift from operations-driven, tactical responsibilities to a larger view. We must change our perspective to look beyond what is on our desks to the big picture, and from what needs to be done today to the future – frequently several years ahead.

A post in the Harvard Business Review blog tells us, “In study after study, strategic thinkers are found to be among the most highly effective leaders…a true strategic leader thinks and acts strategically every day.” And the results of a survey conducted by James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge, showed that 72% of respondents thought that a leader needed to be “forward-looking.” And, “among respondents holding more-senior roles in organizations, the percentage was even greater, at 88%.” Unfortunately, however, leaders don’t necessarily prioritize strategic thinking. Kouzes and Posner also report that, “researchers who study executives’ work activities estimate that only 3% of the typical business leader’s time is spent envisioning.”

If you are a leader who wants or needs to bring more strategic thinking to your position, here are some things you can do today:

  • Set aside time for strategic thinking. This can seem impossible when faced with urgent and endless day-to-day matters, but it is up to you to control how your time is spent. Evaluate what tasks you can delegate to others; block off time on your calendar to devote to strategic matters.
  • Increase the information available to you. Read or listen to the news every day or at least read a good weekly news periodical. Develop broader and more diverse networks, and connect with them regularly to get their perspectives and ask them what trends and shifts they are seeing.
  • Reflect thinking outside of your domain and into the future. When you are writing a memo or email or presenting to others, check in with yourself to see if your language is solely in the here and now of your world, or if you are looking bigger picture.
  • Strategic thinking is curious, ambiguous, and imaginative; so develop comfort with that space. Explore big, broad questions about the future, beyond just your organization. What will happen as our lives become more internet- and electronic-gadget-based? As the world’s middle-class population grows?

While it is important for you as a leader to develop the ability to think and act strategically, setting a future direction and priorities often involves the participation of others. In my next blog post, I will discuss the strategic planning process, and how to ensure your group is engaged in developing strategy, not just planning.

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