My work most often puts me in the coaching space with a high-performing up-and-comer. Someone whose star is already rising – and with potential to go just as far as they would wish, clear for all to see.
And when I talk to these high performers about what they need to work on, “strategy” is almost always in there. Never shy to ask for feedback from higher-ups on what’s needed to ascend, these high-performers hear that requirement repeatedly – and with good cause. Nothing like an ability for strategic thinking to set us apart.
But when I ask if them for the detail behind that feedback, there’s rarely a good answer. More often than not, it’s just “be more strategic” – or some similarly vague and unactionable comment.
And so the up-and-comer comes to fear “strategy” as something overly-complex, the preserve of a select few and for sure, well-above their station.
But that need not be the case. And the personal traits (like curiosity, flexibility and positivity), behaviours (asking questions, challenging assumptions, assessing the competition) and thinking skills (envisioning, critical thinking, decision making) of strategic thinkers are available to us all.
So, let’s get to work on all that now: starting with a definition of Strategic Thinking.
Defining “strategic thinking”
“An ongoing process of thought and action, creating the best possible results tomorrow with the opportunities present today – and in ways that align with the vision, values and purpose of the organisation.”
Break this definition down, and we immediately get simple and actionable steps to move use towards being more strategic.
- An ongoing process: this is something I need to commit to and set aside time for, ongoing. Do you have time blocked-out in your calendar for “strategy”?
- Thought and action: this is not just thinking, but action and implementation in the real world. Am I working on the thinking skills? And how much of my thinking am I turning into real-world action?
- Best possible results tomorrow: this is about creating an alternative future in the present moment. How clear am I on what a “best possible” result looks like?
- Opportunities present today: not waiting for something to happen in the future, but being continually attuned to the myriad possibilities that surround us, right now. What am I doing to challenge my autopilot and see the opportunities that are abundant, right now?
- Aligned with vision, values and purpose: not just any and all actions, but those that are consistent with the underlying organising principles of the organisation. Do I know what the vision, values and purpose of the organisation actually are?
The 3 key qualities of a strategy
From our base definition, we might derive 3 key qualities that must be present in any strategy we land on:
- Focus. Successful strategy makes quality decisions on where – and where NOT – to compete.
- Alignment. Successful strategies will align with the overall vision and purpose; and the constituent parts of the strategy will align with each other.
- Agility. If and as organisational climates require, successful strategies must be able to flex and evolve.
A simple question-set that will make you a better strategist
Here is a simple question-set to add to your toolkit to advance any project from a more strategic perspective.
1. WHAT are we looking to achieve?
- When I work with my clients, one of the great benefits they take away is the ability to self-coach and to bring a coaching approach to their work with others. Underpinning that ability is one golden rule: “Start with the goal!” But only always.
- Get really clear, really early on in the process, on what it is we’re looking to achieve. Get you and your team connected to that vision. Understand what that vision will lead to. And what the metrics are for its successful achievement.
2. WHY are we looking to do this?
- We only want to invest precious time and resource in strategies worth pursuing. The first directive in understanding that question is asking why.
- In the first question, we asked what success leads to. Take that a step further: what does success do for us, our stakeholders and anyone else in our circle? Think benefits – and not just financial, but physical, emotional, reputation – and so on. If we can talk in terms of why, we’re much more likely to deliver on the strategy.
3. WHO are we doing this for?
- We’re probably already clear on this. Just who are our stakeholders? And again, really stretch this question. Don’t stop thinking at the front-line receivers of the strategy. Who else, who else, and who else does this impact? What are their wants, needs, dominant problems and required solutions? And how will the strategy exceed those expectations?
4. WHERE are we now
- Being anchored to the current reality can very often stand in the way of dreaming-up previously unimaginable solutions and strategies – which is why we don’t tackle where we are until after we’ve gotten really clear on the outcomes we’re striving for.
- Where are we now kick-starts the gap analysis between here and there. What’s working well? What can we build on? What needs changing? What needs removing? Who will be our sponsors, champions, detractors and opponents? Keep pushing on these questions: they will setup the tactics to deliver on the strategy.
5. WHAT do we have to do differently?
- If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always gotten. So our change strategy will require new ways of thinking and working. And if we’ve done a good job of the above 4 questions, what needs to happen now will be largely apparent.
- What’s key is to work on the sequence of activities. And to work-on enough time and flexibility for review and adaptation. At the outset of a strategy, it’s important to analyse the data to inform the decisions. But in the end, nothing informs us like time and experience. So get started!
Building the strategic thinking habit
With what you’ve taken away from this article, set yourself a little challenge: link EVERYTHING you do, at all times, in all areas and at all levels, to the overall strategy. Build the habit of relating on-the-ground tasks and projects to the bigger picture.
Soon, you’ll be seeing the strategic angles everywhere!