How to Think Strategically

What you need to do to develop a strategic mindset… 💭

12 min read

A strategy meeting between three people using a whiteboard

It is important, no matter what level you are at within a business, to be able to think strategically. It’s true that thinking strategically is the fundamental skill you need to develop to undertake productive and successful strategic planning, but it should never be just the reserve of the CEO, the Chief Strategy Officer or some lucky Innovation Lead who gets to spend all day lounging in a Google-esque pod with headphones on and a smug smile.

Having a strategic mindset will improve anyone’s long-term success. Strategic thinking will give you the edge – both you personally in your career, and your business against your competitors.

What is strategic thinking?

Strategic thinking is all about how you make decisions. If you have a strategic mindset you will have an intelligent and informed process by which you make decisions. You will demonstrate creative thinking, see solutions to problems, innovate, recognise opportunities and know how to take advantage of them. As a strategic thinker, you’re thinking ahead, planning for the future, focused on long-term success.

Can you learn to think strategically?

Do people just have an innate ability to think strategically, or can you learn how to think in this way and train yourself to have this mindset? Well, we have good news… the answer is yes, you can learn it.

Having worked with business leaders for many years, helping to craft the strategies of countless companies, we’ve observed the traits and tendencies of the most gifted strategic thinkers. We’ve boiled those characteristics and abilities down to this definitive list and devised a number of coaching methods to help you train your brain to think in the same way.

When you first start implementing our suggestions here, they may feel a little uncomfortable and forced, but keep going and you’ll eventually train yourself and alter your mindset until strategic thinking is second nature.

What are the traits of a strategic thinker?

So, to be a strategic thinker and demonstrate a strategic mindset, you need to:

  • Think outside the box
  • Keep questioning
  • Get some space and look up and out
  • Stay informed, be knowledgeable, keep on the front-foot
  • Have ideas
  • Assess those ideas strategically
  • Be ready for change
  • Have a thirst for knowledge and learning
  • Help others think strategically

Let’s look at each of those in turn and explore what you can do to adopt this mindset.

Think outside the box

We know, groan. But… it’s true! You need your thinking to be elevated above how things are usually done. Don’t be limited by the traditional way of doing things. You need to not be constrained by existing process, methods or best practice and be able to see the problem afresh and be completely open-minded about possible solutions.

Here’s one trick to help develop this open-mindedness and to get you out of the habit of ‘this is how things are always done’. Each time you come up with a solution to a problem or a way to achieve a goal, deliberately stop, put that to one side and think ‘is there a different, new way to do this?’ You might not come up with anything better than your more conventional idea, but the habit of trying to force an alternative way will help you train yourself to think ‘outside the box’.

Keep questioning

Try to ask why and keep asking – drill down with a few more whys than might be comfortable! Often you think you’ve reached the root cause or answer, but by asking a couple more whys you can force further down until you hit the true root. Embrace your inner child and see how many whys you can ask in a row. Be that annoying kid who just keeps asking why, why, why, why. Again, forcing this like this is just to train your brain to question – eventually it’ll be second nature to you.

Get some space and look up and out

One of the most important things you’ll need to do if you want to think strategically is get some distance. Strategic thinking is all about the bigger picture, so you need to stop looking at the small detail for a bit. You need time to reflect and think. Get away from the day-to-day BAU and create some space to have ideas, assess external factors and look at the market.

Get away from your emails! The biggest barrier to strategic thinking is your current workload and the hectic pace of many jobs. Make space. Don’t be afraid to leave your computer and gaze into the distance – you don’t need to feel guilty if you’re not showing as online on your comms system! You’re doing important work that will make a bigger difference than just constantly reading emails.

But that’s easier said than done right? So how do you make space?

  • Use a 2 x 2 prioritisation matrix to prioritise everything you do. This is a great time management tool where you have an axis for effort and an axis for impact and you can map your jobs across them - ‘high impact but low effort’, ‘low impact but high effort' etc
  • Run a start, stop, continue on your to-do list – what should you stop doing? What is not creating value and contributing to hitting your goals?
  • Be really strict with your time. Communicate to everyone that you’re carving out a set time for this space and you won’t be available. Block it out in your diary and be ruthless

Stay informed, know your stuff

Once you have that space you can look up from your desk and observe the market. Spot trends, understand the external impacts on your business, keep up-to-date with benchmarks, competitor performance and customer habits. Stay informed. You want to always stay on the front-foot and avoid being caught out – by someone in a meeting highlighting something you really should have known about, right through to being out-manoeuvred by a competitor.

Have ideas

Everything we’ve covered so far is all leading to this…. Having ideas. Steve Jobs famously said that ‘Creativity is just connecting things’, so the more things you know, the more chance you have of coming up with lots of ideas. Therefore, getting some space so you can look out at what’s happening in your market and read, consume, watch and observe on a quest for knowledge are the first, important steps to being an ideas machine.

Then have a detailed think about your business, product or service and customers/buyer personas. Where are the gaps, improvements, extensions, efficiencies that could be made?

Doing some analysis of your business (or product, department - whatever you manage) using tools like SWOT or SOAR, is a great way to kick-start thinking in this way. When you compare your strengths or weaknesses with your opportunities you will start to see where new ideas could help you achieve your potential.

Consider the following things:

  • Can you see trends outside of your industry that you could ‘connect’ with your product or service, or your solution to help improve your offering?

  • What are your customers using in other areas of their lives? Is there any aspect of what they love elsewhere that you could ‘connect’ with your product or service?

  • What could you do differently to help distinguish yourself from the competition?

  • What would you absolutely love to do for our customers if money and time were no object?

  • What annoys your customers most at the moment?

Once you have a list of ideas, rate them. Just base this initial ranking on your gut feel. Which of these ideas do you like the most? Which excite you? Once you have that ranked list, it’s time to assess them in more detail.

Because to be truly strategic in your thinking, you need to do more than have ideas – you need to be assessing those ideas, making informed and intelligent decisions about what to progress and what not to progress. That’s the important difference between being a creative business thinker and a strategic business thinker. That is what will turn you from an Ideas Person, to a Growth Driver.

Assess those ideas in a smart way

So, you need to test your ideas using strategic frameworks. There are many frameworks to assist you in evaluating ideas. The SFA Matrix is a tool used to score strategic plans on their suitability, feasibility and acceptability. The VRIO framework enables you to establish your competitive advantages, while The MESE Principle is an approach to grouping your data to avoid anything falling through the gaps. There are many others, you can find more in our strategy guides.

Make these frameworks your friend. It’s worth taking some time to get to know them all and deciding which particularly resonate with you and float your boat. Try to build an arsenal of these tools and models into which you can reach whenever you, or someone on the team, have a new idea. Get in the habit of running all new concepts through your chosen frameworks as a matter of course.

Using tried and tested models like this will also speed up your decision making. So not only will they help you make better, informed decisions, they can usually help you get there faster too. Instead of musing for long periods or going around the houses in endless discussions, you’ll cut right to the chase and quickly assess the ideas and make a call.

Embrace change

Be ready for change! This again comes down to not being limited by a ‘this is how things are done’ mentality.

Having a strategy plan is crucial, it’s the smart way to properly drive growth and achieve your goals – but it needs to always be flexible and you need to be happy to change if circumstances demand it.

A strategy plan should never be a straitjacket. In fact, having a documented plan against which all your tasks are aligned makes change easier if it needs to happen.

With a plan that is accessible and used and referred to day-in, day out, you’ll be able to eliminate any concerns and anxiety usually caused by uncertainty during times of change. You can confidently explain the change and the reasons why and point your people to the new, altered plan – showing the new goals and targets and the positive results it will bring in the future.

But in order to get there you need to be open to change. Too many people are reluctant to change their strategy and focus, even when circumstances change.

Often people can see the need for change coming over the horizon but drop their heads down and just keep ploughing on with the jobs on their list and the tasks in the plan. They are bashing through their strategic tasks in a transactional manner, blindly following the plan. These people may think they are strategic as they work through the strategic tasks to meet the goals and targets, but they’ve turned off their strategic mindset, once the strategy plan was set, they’ve taken off their strategic hat and put it away until the next offsite.

Those people are not strategic thinkers. Strategic thinkers firstly see the need for change before anyone else, because they always have one eye on the external environment and make the time for outward thinking consistently (not just at the designated offsite sessions), and secondly they embrace it, are excited by it even - the opportunity to problem-solve and find creative solutions with the promise of potentially yielding better results.

Thirst for knowledge

Have a thirst for knowledge – be a motivated self-learner. Subscribe to podcasts, sign up to blogs (hint, hint….), read books, ask your peers. Be curious. And then share – share your knowledge.

A true strategic thinker recognises that the more strategic thinkers in the business, the better the business will be. Which brings us to the next important aspect of the strategic mindset…

Create a culture of strategic thinking

If you’re a CEO, or indeed the leader of any team, you’ll want to make sure you have strategic thinkers where you need them. Now you know how to develop yourself as a strategic thinker, how can you encourage your team to think strategically?

A true strategic thinker is always focused on the long-term success of the business…. And fostering a culture of strategic thinking will be an important way to achieve that. Luckily, we have a guide being written as we speak on getting your team to think strategically too! Subscribe at the bottom of the page and we’ll be sure to send it to you.

So that is everything you need to do to think strategically and be a strategic thinker. One other way to look at this, is to know what you should not be doing. If you’re equally as aware of everything a strategic thinker is not, then you can recognise it and stop yourself if ever you find yourself displaying any of the following characteristics…

A strategic thinker is not:

  • Reactive only, waiting for others to tell them what to do
  • Confined by their current responsibilities or job description
  • Scared to present an alternative way of doing something (with thorough reasoning based on proper analysis, of course)
  • Afraid of other people’s success or helping teammates grow, improve and shine
  • Strapped to their computer all day
  • Always available on email or the phone, answering messages straight away
  • Shy of talking to customers, peers outside of their company, partners and others who can share their experiences and help them learn
  • Thrown if circumstances change and plans need to be altered

Good luck on your journey to strategic enlightenment

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