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Why Strategic Thinking should be your #1 priority

Updated: Sep 24, 2022

Considering most leaders said they did not have enough time for strategic thinking (over 95%), if you do spend the time on strategic thinking is going to give you a huge competitive advantage in the marketplace.

But what is Strategic Thinking really, and how do I become a Strategic Thinker?

Strategic Thinking is a mental or thinking process applied by an individual in the context of achieving a goal or set of goals in a game or other endeavor. As a cognitive activity, it produces thought. It can be easily executed by, for example, looking at what we are doing, make sure we're optimizing our though process as well as out workflows and habits, to make sure that we are focused on the right things.

Henry Mintzberg wrote in 1994 that strategic thinking is more about synthesis (i.e., "connecting the dots") than analysis (i.e., "finding the dots").

The first step towards Strategic Thinking, make time!

The very first step towards enabling yourself for Strategic Thinking is actually making the time to do so. You need to acknowledge that unless you do not block time in your calendar for it, it will not likely happen.

Knowing how much you will benefit from making time for Strategic Thinking, it will be foolish not to set it as your top priority in your “to-do” list, and make no mistake, we will address how to that in just a minute.

Truth is, you can always carve time in your busy calendar, it is just a matter of prioritizing accordingly.

Once you have blocked your calendar for Strategic Thinking, you may be thinking, “now what?”

Truth is, you need to make a conscious effort to value the outcome of your Strategic Thinking. And to ensure you get the most out of your sessions you need to kick off some serious questions to retrospect on how things are going for you, what is going well, what could be improved and what is standing between you and your goals.

Establish clear goals

The very first question you may need to ask is, do you have clear goals? This goes for both your personal and professional life. If you do, you are already in a good place. Then you may need to ask yourself if those goals are the right for you, and if you have a plan to achieve them.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are I and my team focusing and doing the right things?

  • What have I done today, or this week, or this month that aligns with achieving my long-term goals?

  • Are there any roadblocks or impediments that prevent me from achieving those goals, and what do I need to do or acquire to remove those impediments?

  • Have I identified major milestones, and have identified a critical path, that could hinder progress in the future towards achieving those goals?

  • What should I be doing differently that can help me move towards those goals?

You will need to review these questions often, and how often will depend on how volatile your goals may be become over time, or how your progress is taking shape.

To make sure your goals are clear and reachable, they should be SMART (a concept introduced by Peter Drucker). We have all heard about SMART goals and basically it breaks down goal creating to the following components:

Once you have identified your goals, it may help you to become systemic in your approach to measure your progress towards your goals, and do it in a very similar, if not identical fashion.

  • Write down initial assumptions – over time, it may help you analyze your point of view when taking on new goals. Are you risk adverse, are you optimistic or pessimistic? Are you really considering all stakeholders? You may surprise what you uncover about yourself when you revisit them later.

  • Visualize three to five potential different outcomes – this will help you broad your view on the “what ifs” scenarios. Invite other people to chime in, usually other people see risks and opportunities that we do not. Or they may even uncover new scenarios we never thought about.

  • Perform a SWOT analysis for those scenarios – understanding what you are up against in every scenario may help you make certain decisions early on that may save you a lot of time upfront.

  • Identify a support team that will work with you – if already don’t have a team working with you, it may be beneficial to enlist a few people to simply discuss your thoughts and actions towards your goals and they help you see things a different way. Make sure you create a safe environment for them to provide you real input and feedback. It is critical that you keep your ego at bay for this step to work.

limit your WIP; the Lean approach to prioritization

We have talked about not having time for Strategic Thinking is a perceived problem, while the reality is a matter of prioritization. But what happens when everything is a priority and there is not enough time to tackle it all?

Prioritizing works, but eventually with so many goals and important things accomplish the strategy becomes bloated and untenable, simply because we are pulled in too many different directions.

We should always be asking ourselves “is this really a priority, or can we tackle it later, or even better, do without it altogether?”

Understanding that focusing on just a few things at a time makes you achieve more is something that may take time; but it is very worthy to explore. Ask yourself what value do I get if I am half way to finish 10 different tasks, as opposed to have finished 3 by the end of the day. At times, people (including yourself) may be waiting on some tasks to be completed to make important decisions that may impact the other tasks at hand, for you or other people. You may want to focus on just a few things a day and complete them, then move on to the following tasks with the same approach. That way you enable a continuous flow of work for you and others.

Keeping Track of your progress

You can help yourself with the following to keep track of your progress:

  • Taking daily notes – you may forget details of progress if you don’t write those small accomplishments down. You may also realize there are some patterns that manifest along the way that may accelerate your progress or slow you down that unless you write those down, they me just assumptions.

  • Get a mentor – a mentor can always look at things from a different angle and provide feedback that otherwise may go unnoticed. You can also ask your mentor to sit in some of your meetings and pay attention to some of your behaviors and your audience reactions to help you identify soft skills to polish.

  • Use different charts to visualize outcomes and progress – by suing different avenues to visualize your progress other than note-taking it will help you convey your thoughts in a different way and it may help you understand and communicate the bigger picture to different audiences.

  • Keep track of meaningful progress – To do list usually helps prioritize work and getting important things done when applied properly. But much more important when we are looking at long term goals are the Focus list, which should be a list of short-term goals supported by your To-Do list. Those short-term goals should align clearly with achieving your long-term Goals. If your To-Do list is consistently not supporting those short-term goals; you are not focusing on the right things and it is time to revisit your approach.

Continuous Improvement, the beating heart of Strategic Thinking

Usually we are all very good at setting up time, and even tasks forces to solve problems. And that is when a useful and neglected Strategic Thinking tool comes very handy. The famous “5 Why’s of Root Cause Analysis”

You will be surprise with new insights when you keep on asking why things have happened. Treating symptoms have never cured the real problem. Symptoms may be away temporarily when treated but they problem will inevitably persist and will manifest again. Asking Why to the apparent problem will start uncovering the path of manifestation a problem has taken, that may be he hard to discover and properly treat otherwise.

Defining a cadence to revisit progress will help you get better and better over time. Continuous improvement doesn’t happen overnight, and it needs a little structure for everything to work and gel together.

Set a cadence to review your progress towards your goals and check with your team to ensure you are on the right track. You must do this methodically and establish a cadence that works for meaningful progress check.

You are better of adjusting your approach early on rather than later in the game when you have invested a lot of time already.

Consider checking in every two weeks to check on progress made, that should give you a solid start. Once the cadence is established, do not change it.

Remember that small progress is still progress, and that repetition build habit.

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