Top 11 Ways to Think Strategically (Strategy series 2/3)
Have you ever been told that you need to be more strategic without giving any concrete guidance on how to do that? If this is a top visible skill that helps you climb the organizational chart, it is worth the effort to grow the ability, regardless of your current position.
Being a strategic thinker can involve the big-picture, where you are not making decisions in a vacuum. You consider the future direction, how other departments might be affected, and how the outside world could respond to your choices.
Here are some specific approaches you can take to be a more strategic or a big picture thinker:
1. Take a stakeholder-centered approach. Step outside of your silo and stand in the shoes of all those connected to and impacted by your company. Consider these perspectives:
· Go vertical (up and down). Step back and survey the landscape to see the system. You can think about the customer, direct reports, manager, skip manager, CEO, shareholders, and community — both locally and globally. Ask the question — what do these people want and need? Where are the common denominators?
· Go horizontal (left and right). How are you considering other departments in your strategy? How is it aligned with the company’s domestic and international vision? Look across to your direct competitors or beyond to other industries to collect some of the best ideas and trends to make sense of the data in terms of what it means for your team and your company.
· Use an impact lens. What will be the result of your strategy on your organization and these various stakeholders? Do the outcomes support the broader goals of the organization? What could negatively impact the results? What do business partners need to understand to ensure its success? Having some answers to these questions can help you be more thoughtful and strategic.
2. Consider the timeframe. What are you trying to do in the short-term v. long-term? What does success look like in 6 months? 1 year? 3 years? What are the early signs of success/failure? What skills and talent will it take to succeed in the long term? If you were to create a basic road map to navigate to success, what would that look like? How will you know when you have arrived? Whom do you need to support your journey?
3. Think about challenges and ask key questions. Anticipating problems and trends within your organization and industry can be immensely powerful. You may want to ask: What are the three most important challenges today? How about the most significant future challenges? How does today’s work fit into future work? This is how a commander approaches their work, they seek to understand how each battle plays a part in the larger war. What challenge would be the hardest to tackle that you cannot see right now? What challenge would be the most important or lead domino that would knock over several other dominos?
4. To be a strategic thinker, develop problem-solving skills. Most people want to offer a solution to the problem before adequately defining it. Quick fixes may seem convenient, but they often solve only the surface issues and waste resources that could otherwise be used to tackle the real cause. The 5 WHYs technique is great for getting at the root cause and preventing stubborn or recurrent problems as they are symptoms of deeper causes. It was developed and fine-tuned within the Toyota Motor Corporation as a critical component of its problem-solving training. Sakichi Toyoda, the Japanese Thomas Edison and architect of the Toyota Production System in the 1950s, describes the method in his book as “the basis of Toyota’s scientific approach . . . by repeating the word why five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.” Today, the method is used far beyond Toyota and is popular in lean development.
Here is an example from Buffer:
1. Why did the system go down? [Because the database became locked.]
2. Why did it become locked? [Because there were too many database writes]
3. Why were we doing too many database writes? [Because this was not foreseen, and it was not load tested]
4. Why wasn’t this change load tested? [Because we don’t have a development process set up for when we should load test changes]
5. Why don’t we have a development process for when to load test? [We’ve never done too much load testing and are hitting new levels of scale.]
It is going beyond the presenting issue and symptoms to treat the root cause.
5. You can question basic assumptions. If you are discussing a long-term company strategy upon which years of effort and expense will be based, you can ask basic questions about your beliefs. How do you know that business will increase? What does the research say about your expectations about the future of the market? Have you taken the time to step into the figurative shoes of your customers as a “secret shopper?” Another way to question your assumptions is to consider alternatives. You might ask: what if our clients changed? What if our suppliers went out of business? These sorts of questions help you gain new and vital perspectives that help hone your thinking.
6. Use First principles thinking. It is the best way to reverse-engineer complicated problems and reveal creative possibilities. The idea is to break down complex problems into fundamental elements and then reassemble them from the ground up. It’s one of the best ways to learn to think for yourself, unlock your creative potential, and move from linear to non-linear results. This approach was used by the philosopher Aristotle who defined it as the first basis from which a thing is known, and now by Elon Musk and Charlie Munger. It is about thinking like a scientist and not assuming anything; What is true and what has been proven?
Musk gave an example of how Space X uses first principles to innovate at low prices. People thought battery packs were expensive because that’s the way they have been in the past. Musk responded,
“Well, no, that’s pretty dumb… Because if you applied that reasoning to anything new, then you wouldn’t be able to ever get to that new thing…. you can’t say, … oh, nobody wants a car because horses are great, and we’re used to them and they can eat grass and there’s lots of grass all over the place and … there’s no gasoline that people can buy. Historically, battery packs cost $600 per kilowatt-hour… So the first principles would be, … what are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the spot market value of the material constituents? … It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation, and a steel can. So break that down on a material basis; if we bought that on a London Metal Exchange, what would each of these things cost? Oh, jeez, it’s … $80 per kilowatt-hour. So, clearly, you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell, and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.”
First principles thinking allows you to see problems from multiple angles and interpret complex and conflicting information with curiosity and open-mindedness, and that’s what strategic thinking is all about.
7. See the rich interconnectivity. Agents can sometimes interact in ways where they fundamentally change each other and something entirely different and unpredictable emerges from the contact. Paul Cilliers used the following analogy: “a jumbo jet is complicated (it is equal to the sum of its parts), and if you had to take it apart or reverse actions, you could, mayonnaise is complex (once mixed, you can’t separate the parts again; the Interaction fundamentally changes them).” In other words, complex systems are subject to co-evolution, and once it happens, it’s irreversible. How can you factor this idea into your strategy or big-picture thinking? Which steps you choose to take will be easily reversible, and which ones are permanent? How will that impact your experiments? Knowing this information will help you thrive in a VUCA world.
8. Use Polarity Thinking. In Adam Grant’s Think Again, he talks about polarity thinking. For example, how can two great thought leaders have two different perspectives? Daniel Goleman would argue that EQ matters more than IQ as it can determine 90% of a leader’s success. In contrast, Jordan Peterson would maintain that EQ is a corporate marketing scheme; he downplays its importance. How can these two PhD holders be right if they have opposite views? Polarity thinking can allow both of them to be right, especially when thinking about context. Instead of talking about why it is important, you want to talk about WHEN it is important. EQ is beneficial with jobs that deal with perceiving and understanding emotions (customer service, counseling) but less relevant and even detrimental where emotions are less essential (mechanics, accountants). How can you apply polarity thinking or both/and approach to your business as a creative exercise?
9. Consider the 4 Cs analytical framework. Adam Brandenburger writes about contrast, combination, constraint, and context to get creative with your strategy:
· Contrast. Challenge the assumptions undergirding the status quo.
· Combination. Steve Jobs famously said that creativity is “just connecting things”; what products or services seem independent from or even in tension with one another can you link?
· Constraint. A good strategist looks at an organization’s limitations and considers how they might become strengths. A lack of resources can be a fertilizer for innovation. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was staying near Lake Geneva during an unusually cold and stormy summer and found herself trapped indoors with nothing to do but exercise her imagination. Artists are pretty familiar with limitations, from setbacks to structural ones like writing a 14-line poem. How can you take a no and turn it into a yes? A client I was coaching was trying to get a budget for a new hire and when she was told no, she remained undeterred. She came up with an internal rotation idea as a way of repurposing talent to help on other teams. This solution helped with another goal of reducing burnout and attrition because it gave other people an option of doing different work, exercising their passion, and staying engaged.
· Context. If you reflect on how a problem which is similar to yours was solved in an entirely different context, surprising insights may emerge.
10. Scenario planning. How can you lay out 3 likely scenarios, a least likely one, and a crazy one so you are prepared for as much as you can? What redundancies can you put into place so that there is support in place if one path fails? How can you anticipate what other people want and are likely to do so you can craft your response? Art Kleiner, Editor-in-Chief of PwC Global promotes the habit of mentalizing — which is thinking about what other people are thinking and instead of sharing what they want or what you want, going a step beyond to articulate what they are likely to do next.
11. Toggle. Move between the big-picture and day-to-day execution to broaden your view. As you are completing the day-to-day work, can you easily connect the work to the mission and vision? Do you know the why behind the small decisions? Similarly, in those conceptual meetings, can you move from the 1,000 feet view to the 100 to understand the next steps and road map that will allow you to ascend? Can you take a broad idea and create a plan with metrics and benchmarks while keeping the WHY top of mind?
Once you have engaged in strategic thinking, it is important to have time for reflection so you can consolidate the learnings, get clear on your point of view, and communicate your strategy so your boss knows you are a strategic thinker. Here are two helpful steps for perception management:
1. Get clear on your point of view. When you have considered and implemented the above approaches, bring a perspective to the table. Do people know where you stand? Your leaders want to know what you think, so when you show that you are considering the big-picture and can articulate your views, you can stand out for a promotion. Beyond just coming up with ideas, it’s even more powerful when you can take the initiative and show you have thought a few steps ahead of how you would implement something and put your ideas into action. Having good ideas and strategies are only the first step; you also must communicate them and bring people along.
2. Carve out prep time before your meetings. It can be too easy for us to feel like we will wing the meeting, but it is more powerful when we are deliberate. Block out 30 minutes on your calendar before essential meetings so you have time to collect your thoughts, and arrange and package your ideas into a coherent vision and direction. That shows strategic thinking when you are capable of synthesizing information and articulating knowledge concisely and compellingly. You can take the same approach in emails, when you are talking about completing work, you can offer the WHY behind the work and connect it to the mission and vision.
Having strategic thinking skills is essential for all people in the organization to develop because you can better deal with uncertainty and complexity. A common mistake for leaders as they rise through the ranks is that they stay in operational or execution mode and are not doing enough of the strategy work to get to the next phase of their careers. Using any of these frameworks can not only help you advance but also strengthen your contributions to your team and organization.
Quote of the day: “Always start at the end before you begin.” Author Robert Kiyosaki
Q: How do you develop your strategic thinking skills? What are your best practices for being strategic? Comment and share with us; we would love to hear!
The next blog in this series (3 of 3) will focus on thinking and reflecting practices to strengthen your strategic thinking skills
As a Leadership Coach, I partner with leaders to engage in strategic thinking for them and their teams, contact me to learn more.