Strategic thinking is recognized as a critical leadership skill. The respected leadership consultancy Zenger Folkman found, “a key characteristic that is highly correlated with promotion is the ability to think strategically,” and “for senior leaders, the one competency that helped them stand out was Strategic Perspective.” 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%.”
A description of “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 the entity that you lead, which could be a program, department, line-of-business, or organization. Where are you going in the future, and why?
Strategic thinking can be described by these activities:
- Assessing the challenges or commonalities you see within or across projects, departments, or lines-of-business within your organization
- Considering trends and developments external to your organization, those of today and the future
- Seeing patterns and connections among ideas and actions, both internal and external to your organization
- Evaluating the impact these challenges, trends, patterns, and connections have or may have on your program, department, LOB, or organization
- Leveraging these insights to make decisions and choose a path to support the success of the entity that you lead, even when faced with ambiguity or uncertainty
Some specific ways to think and act more strategically are:
- 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. (For a refresher on how to create time for Important But Not Urgent matters like strategic thinking, see my blog post on How To Be More Productive).
- Ask big questions. Creating a bigger picture means asking questions about the bigger picture, like: what would success look like in five years? What does it take for us to get there? What could impede our success? How can we anticipate and minimize obstacles and risks? What can we do to uncover and address blind spots?
- Increase the information available to you. Browse the news every day or read a good weekly news periodical (or listen to the podcast equivalent). Review blogs and newsletters for your profession or industry. Develop broader and more diverse networks, and ask your colleagues what trends and shifts they are seeing.
- Develop comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty. I have a client who has a hard time creating a projected future because he is worried that it will be incorrect. None of us can predict the future, but we can document the information, thought processes, and assumptions that we use to create a projected future. Then if something turns out differently than expected, we can understand why that happened and adjust our projection accordingly.
- Use strategic verbiage. When you are writing an email or presenting to others, make sure your word choices reflect the bigger picture and demonstrate strategic thinking.
While it is important for you as a leader to develop the ability to think and act strategically, setting a future direction and priorities usually involves the participation of others. In my next blog post, I will discuss the strategic planning process and how to ensure your team is engaged in strategy, not just planning.