4 Activities to Develop Strategic Thinking in Leaders and Managers
What is Strategic Thinking?
Strategic thinking according to “Management, A Practical Introduction” by Angelo Kinicki and Brian K. Williams is “Envisioning what might happen in the future and then applying that to our current circumstances.” Strategic thinkers tend to be more proactive people rather than reactive. Due to this nature, one of the best skills to develop if you have the tendency to be a reaction person is to develop your strategic thinking.
The term itself is rooted in strategy and the skill is universally applicable in all aspects of an organization. Strategic thinking is a skill that is a must for a leader or manager of an organization. This skill is rarely listed on any applications for management or leadership, because most hiring managers believe that strategic thinking is implied if you are seeking a management level position. It is true that the strategic thinkers will be the ones up for promotion, while those lacking in the ability to think strategically will be the ones lagging behind.
What Are the Benefits of Strategic Thinking?
Perspective and orientation are two key benefits of thinking strategically. This skill allows its user to see a much larger picture which is a precursor for manipulating a situation. Strategic thinking in general makes you more informed and prepared to handle not only the current situation, but any number of situations that may be produced from the present. It goes without saying then that strategic thinking produces a problem-solving atmosphere, this becomes visible especially when difficult-to-solve problems present themselves.
Application of Strategic Thinking
I believe that the application of strategic thinking requires that we be rooted in a business or organization, or at least have one of focus in order to grow our ability to think strategically. I’m sure that we could apply this to other areas of life, however, with business being the platform here, I will shift the focus of the application of strategic thinking to only businesses and organizations.
Understanding the Business
Understanding the business that you are involved in is key in order to grow your ability to think strategically. Recall that strategic thinking is envisioning what may happen and then applying this to our current circumstances. The best way to predict future scenarios is to thoroughly understand what is going on. In a business, we must know what should be happening in order to predict what may happen. This is true for any level in a tall or short organization.
This is achieved more easily in some businesses than others, because, lets face it, some businesses get incredibly complex. The more complex the business the more general our understanding should be. If the business is relatively simple, then perhaps we can afford to investigate understanding it more meticulously. At first, we should probably begin by studying the mission, vision, and value statements. We should follow this up by researching the products, goals, and services that the organization offers as well as its methods of marketing, sales, and revenue collection. Finally, we should study the structure and operations of the business to achieve a thorough understanding. I would follow this up with any financial statements or reports if they are public, as well as any other written public documentation or media. Don’t be overwhelmed and take this process slowly, as things get more complex and interwoven the deeper you probe to understand.
When I first joined my organization and entered a warehouse that I was not familiar with, it seemed like I had entered another world. The language and product codes seemed some ancient cuneiform text that I couldn’t decipher. The product codes were some sort of hellish maturity of the binary programming language. I felt lost. I knew I couldn’t continue being a part of my organization unless I became familiar with my surroundings, and so I began to understand the business from my perspective outwards. This is different than originally described, because I used my place in the business as a starting point and then worked my way outwards. I suggest this to anyone that is plunged into a new business or organization and then acknowledges that they need a deeper understanding of it. Once I was able to thoroughly understand the area of the business that I was directly involved in, I was able to pick up bits and pieces of information outside of the area. Still today I collect information daily, ask questions, and repeat what I believe I understand in order to reinforce my knowledge.
Broadening Functional Knowledge
Broadening your functional knowledge has to do with making connections. Here we must understand the importance of relationship between ourselves and the industry that we are involved in. It is important that we engage everything that is a part of our organization. We need to engage the people, processes, ideas, and events. This activity is one of doing, and in order to practice this, we need to get out and do. Key to this is not to remain complacent behind a desk but go take a stab at learning that company software after it has been recently updated so that you are more apt to thoroughly understand how it works.
Engage the industry itself to practice this activity in order to strengthen your strategic thinking. Meet people and force conversation about the industry and its specifics. Dig down deep into some areas so that you understand more of the underlying properties of the functions and tasks of the organization. Some experts suggest thinking of this as the letter “T”. The upper portion of the letter refers to your broad amount of general knowledge while the base of the letter represents a tendril of specific information and depth of understanding into a very focused area. Seek to increase the number of tendrils of specific, functional information.
I am involved in the logistics side of my organization, specifically shipping. I could averagely perform the functions of my job just by knowing the job and the things that I need to do. By understanding some of the specific details of my job, I can predict future situations and pre-formulate solutions to these situations regardless of their complexity. So long as my understanding runs as deep as the complexity that I am referring to, I will be successful. This is the essence of utilizing critical thinking and it is here that we unlock its power as it relates to leadership. A leader skilled in critical thinking appears to be able to act in an instant on situations that would take a normal responding person much longer. Things like this get noticed.
Setting Aside Time to Reflect
This activity is often overlooked but remains my favorite. Setting aside time for reflection is the precursor to strategic thinking. It is during the reflection time that we grow the areas of our mind that allow us to postulate the scenarios and develop the pre-solutions in order to allow strategic thinking to manifest itself in our actions on the job. It is the reflection time that allow us to grow our ability to deeply connect thoughts with scenarios and potential outcomes to potential solutions in an arena where we have time to sort out information instead of on the fly as things happen. This is the proactive platform that strategic thinking affords us. If we do not take great advantage of time for reflection, we are throwing away our potential before we even have it.
Aside from developing our strategic thinking skills, time for reflection helps us grow as leaders, managers, partners, and individuals. This is an important activity for multiple areas of growth in our lives. The texts that I have read suggest setting aside time at least once a week for critical thinking, however, I believe that some time once a day is ideal. During this time, you should be thinking about what you accomplished, what you have done during the day, what you could have done, and really focus on the connection of how acting differently would have produced different results. Really try to crunch how finely tuned changes in your actions would have finely changed (or drastically) the outcome of the situation. Ponder on how future situations of this flavor are connectable to this situation and how the pattern of actions and events with your decisions could be translated into future manipulation of situations for the overall success of your team and organization.
I have a lengthy commute to work that affords me about an hour of travel time there and an hour of travel time on my return trip. Many of my days I spend time in reflection on the previous day during my trip there followed by reflection of the day spent on my return trip home. This isn’t an everyday occurrence, as I spend a good deal of my time listening to audiobooks from my favorite authors. I have recently completed “The 101 Collection” by author John C. Maxwell. I have found that this reflection is incredibly helpful and has fueled my growth as a leader in my organization. It was during this reflection that sparked my ideas of sharing what I have learned as well as many pursuits in other rewarding areas of life.
Engaging in Lateral Thinking
This is a concept that was developed by Dr. Edward De Bono. He had the idea of using this to encourage insight and creativity. What Dr. De Bono created was the idea of assuming six different mental viewpoints and visualizing the situation using one of these viewpoints at a time. In his teaching, he refers to them as hats. He uses color correspondence in order to help the visual connection with wearing a hat and the type of thought that will occur when one is assuming thought from that viewpoint.
1. A wearer of the white hat would be fact oriented, and their primary purpose would be to gather information required, or state information that they know to be true.
2. A wearer of the yellow hat would express the view of an optimistic person. This person would focus on positivity and explore value.
3. A wearer of the black hat would be the devil’s advocate, presenting opposition and argument.
4. A wearer of the red hat would view the situation from an emotional viewpoint. They would use feelings and intuition to conceptualize the situation.
5. A wearer of the green hat would focus on creative. This hat-bearer would explore ideas and alternative views to the situation.
6. A wearer of the blue hat is a type of fail-safe or control. The blue hat would be the one to make sure that a cyclical fashion of rotation has occurred fairly between all hats.
Lateral thinking is important because it allows us to step outside of ourselves and view the situation from another location. It is called lateral thinking because we are still analyzing the same situation, we are just doing it perched above it from a different position.
The Take Away: Making Progress
If you practice these activities and begin to grow, you will begin to notice things indicative of your growth. One of the key indicators is your preparedness for odd situations that you would normally be stumped or overwhelmed by. In leadership and management, we can encounter some really weird and off-the-wall things. A lot of the time, new leaders especially, will describe leadership as just rolling through a lot of crazy situations and trying to hold on for dear life. This is one of my explanations of it to my wife when I first became involved in leadership. A lot of things have changed since then, and I feel like the ride is much more enjoyable now, and much less crazy. I hope you are able to take away some of the beneficial truths from these activities, and I hope you begin to soon notice that your strategic thinking has improved.