Can strategic thinking be learned? Sure, if you know where to start and are mindful of the mileposts along the way.
Halfway through a two-day strategic planning retreat, a senior leadership team member nervously pulled me aside to make a painful confession. “I just can’t think strategically. I’m really good at running projects, but this strategy thing . . .”
Yes, that “strategy thing.” For many leaders, “strategy” is a thing from another planet. It lands during an offsite when one of those nasty consultants says, “Let’s create our strategic goals.” Or, it appears during a performance review, where you hear the words, “You have to move beyond the tactical. We need forward thinking strategies that take us into the future.”
“Forward thinking. . . Ummm . . .” The lights dim, and the “strategy thing” zooms back into space, leaving the leader stuck on the ground.
There are those for whom strategic thinking comes as naturally as breathing. Converting a current situation into a future opportunity arrives effortlessly. If a customer complains repeatedly that your product directions are obscure, the nonstrategic thinker focuses on repairing the customer relationship. While important, it misses a vital opportunity. The strategic thinker looks beyond repairing the individual customer relationship to ask, “What might be missing in our system that is causing this recurrence?” Therein lies the difference.
What is strategic thinking? Strangely, it lacks a concise definition. In a blog post for Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning, Peter Walsh describes it as “thinking [that] goes beyond looking at what is – it imagines what could be.” He offers a test with several traits including, “future-based, curious, long-term focus, and willing to take risks.”
While I do not quibble with his characterization, for the many people who struggle with the meaning of strategy, these traits add more words in a foreign language. In my work with leaders and strategy over many years, I have observed that if you cannot crack open the door by demystifying the concept of strategy, any attempt to swing the door wider fails.
A leader’s job is to make life better for a diversity of stakeholders, including customers, employees, and management teams. Making things better requires new ideas to address the needs of your stakeholder groups.
The goal of strategy is to find new ideas that deliver long-term competitive value. Developing a strategy begins with two fundamental questions: what problem are you trying to solve and who are the stakeholders who will benefit from it being solved?
Once you answer the who and what questions, you have opened the way to convert the needs of the “who” into ideas to make their lives better. You also create competitive advantage for your organization, which, simply put, is strategy.
Identifying the relevant stakeholders provides a target on which to focus your quest. Once you have identified your stakeholders, you can then burrow into their concerns. A roadmap appears, offering a route to follow towards making something better.
Here are six essential mileposts along this road:
- Identify the problem. Choose an issue that needs a long-term solution.
- Identify the relevant stakeholders. Identify the group of persons affected by the issue – customers, management teams, shareholders, etc.
- Collect the (real) facts. Too often we assume we know how our stakeholders think and feel. It’s easier than getting cluttered by facts. The point of strategic thinking is to unearth the clutter. Go ask open-ended questions and be prepared to hear what you did not expect. Ask lots of follow-on questions. Assume you don’t know the answer, because chances are you don’t. That’s why there is a problem. Strategic ideas often arise from answers we did not anticipate.
- Accept discomfort. Learning unexpected new things can be uncomfortable. That’s good. It means you are asking the right questions.
- Find core patterns. Review the information you collected for themes and suggestions. What patterns unite them? Do they hate your product instructions because they are too complicated or is your company’s communication style condescending and user unfriendly?
- Create and test ideas. Armed with your stakeholders’ feedback, generate ideas you believe will address their concerns long term. Test them by going back to your stakeholders for more feedback. By flexing and learning from your stakeholders, you will discover the ideas that succeed.
These steps underlie strategic thinking and will start you on your way.
Julie Benezet spent 25 years in law and business, and for the past 15 years coached and consulted with executives from virtually every industry. She earned her stripes for leading in the new and unknown as Amazon’s first global real estate executive. She is an award-winning author of The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.