Strategic thinking involves envisioning what might happen in the future and then applying that to our current circumstances. That may sound like a difficult exercise, especially if you’re a busy accountant or financial adviser with little time to think about what’s in front of you, let alone what might be.
But with a bit of direction and the right techniques anyone can become a better strategic thinker and, in the process, a better businessperson. Here’s how you can do it.
The Harvard Business Review puts it this way: “Strategic people create connections between ideas, plans and people that others fail to see.” But how can you possibly make those connections if you never give your mind the chance to see them?
In other words, the first clue about how to think strategically is also the first word in the phrase. You need to think. And that means making a commitment to slow down and let your mind turn things over.
One simple way you can do this is to schedule a time every day or every week where you actively try to simply spend time thinking. It could be during a morning walk, while driving to work or just during a period while you’re alone. However you choose to do your thinking, just make sure it happens regularly: the more often you do it, the better you’ll become.
2. Use the whole of your brain
Because strategic thinking is about creating connections, it actually requires two types of thinking: divergent thinking, where we look at the big picture and generate ideas, and convergent thinking, where we examine and arrange those ideas rationally. Studies also show that the most innovative thinkers have the ability to rapidly switch between these two styles.
The good news is that anyone can improve their ability to switch between the two by consciously making the change from one style of thinking to the other. One popular method for doing this is through the Six Thinking Hats technique pioneered by Edward De Bono. This involves approaching a problem by wearing six different ‘hats’, reflecting different types of convergent and divergent thinking.
These include the green hat (which focuses on possibilities and new ideas), the red hat (feeling and intuition), yellow hat (optimism), white hat (information), blue hat (thinking) and black hat (judgement). While making the switch between these approaches may seem uncomfortable at first, the more often you practice it, the better you usually become – and the more flexibly your mind moves from one way of thinking to the next.
3. Broaden your horizons
Strategic thinking and curiosity go hand in hand. After all, the more ideas and experiences we’re exposed to, the more material we have to make connections with. The most effective way to do this is to step out from behind your desk when you can and start experiencing the world: try to experience new things, new places and new people. Take those holidays you’ve been saving up for, visit that gallery you’ve been meaning to. Even taking a different route home or visiting a new park or restaurant can help stimulate the mind.
But not all new experiences need to be physical ones: reading about new places, new ideas and new opinions can help our strategic thinking too.
In fact, some experts believe that the best strategic thinkers are T-shaped. The bar on the top of the ‘T’ represents the breadth of their knowledge, while the stem represents a deep understanding of their own area of expertise. So, as well as reading widely, you’ll need to understand the finer points of your own industry. By attending seminars and conferences you’ll have the chance to keep up to date while also drawing on the experience and insights of your peers.
Strategy isn’t all about thinking; it’s also about executing. So once you’ve started generating ideas and making connections between them, you’ll have to start making a decision about what to do next.
4. Step into others’ shoes
Another key to starting to think more strategically is to discuss your ideas with different people. And this becomes exponentially more valuable when you discuss your ideas with people who think differently to you. That’s because you won’t just be increasing the pool of ideas and points of view on a topic, you’ll also be given the chance to look at problems in a different way. So if you tend to like detail, but a colleague is big picture, why not ask them to join you for a brainstorming session? Bringing together sales and technical people or extraverts and introverts can be a gold mine for generating ideas.
Your clients can also serve as a great source of inspiration for new ideas and new ways of thinking. And by encouraging them to share their thoughts with you, you won’t just end up with material for new strategic ideas, you’ll be strengthening relationships and building trust.
5. Encourage others
The more strategic minds you have generating ideas for you, the better. So why not try to build a culture in your business where everyone is encouraged to think strategically? The easiest way to do this is to start rewarding people who come up with ingenious ways of doing things. It doesn’t always have to be a financial incentive – often just public recognition of someone’s efforts is enough to spur them on.
You can also encourage your staff to think more strategically by assigning them a mentor or incorporating strategic ideas into your training and performance appraisal system.
6. Make decisions
Strategy isn’t all about thinking; it’s also about executing. So once you’ve started generating ideas and making connections between them, you’ll have to start making decisions about what to do next. And, because we’re all limited by time, money and resources, usually that means prioritising.
To put your strategy into effect, you may have to abandon something you’re doing, look for an employee with a new skillset or spend money on a new office, a new product or a new acquisition. Sometimes you may even have to let staff go.
The worst thing you can do is to let your strategic thinking go to waste because you haven’t been able to make a decision about what to do.
The real value of strategic thinking
Finally, it’s worth remembering that the real value in strategic thinking isn’t just in generating ideas or in making better decisions: it’s about building a framework that future-proofs your business, makes you a better manager and leader and gives you the best chance of achieving long-term success.