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Strategic Thinking - Nuts and Bolts

Strategic thinking is an ability to think of the future.

It involves a capability to anticipate the future and/or create a new one.

The future is shared and hence the ability to envision beyond oneself is also required.

Many of my clients want to improve strategic thinking because as they grow in the organisation, it’s considered to be a key skill.

While there is is much cloud around what it means to really think ‘strategically,’ I prefer to go to the basic thinking processes and generate ways of realising strategic thinking.

Fruitful outcomes on strategic thinking hinge on two different components. They are

  1. Knowledge/content

  2. Thinking process.

While the former is fairly straight forward to do, the latter needs practice.

The endeavour of this post is to make it a little easier for people to do both.

1. Knowledge/Content:

Awareness of the present inside-out:

As ironic it may sound, when you access any navigation software to go to a particular destination through your car/phone, the question it asks you is - where are you currently?

So if you were to become a strategic thinker, you need to know clearly where are you currently.

For example if you are growing your portfolio/ organisation and want to think strategically, the first step in the process is to know what are your products/programs, the customers you serve, the revenue you make, your competitors, alternatives, your organisational priorities etc. This needs to be refreshed periodically. To a large extent, this information is available or can be sourced.

Anticipation of the future outside-in:

Every industry has trends that several consulting/ research firms track and share their point of view. There are several conferences and networking events that highlight them.

These provide us some ammunition for anticipating what future looks like to some extent.

Mary Meeker trends, Gartner Hype Cycles are all examples of future-casting.

Time is again an investment but not much. One hour for a week/ 10 minutes a day can do wonders.

2. Thinking process

The crux of being successful at strategic thinking rests on what do we do with the knowledge we acquire in the first step. Knowing that and building flexibility to think a particular way on demand is certainly helpful.

I wrote about the different types of thinking in my earlier blog. It will be good to read that as well as it would enrich this subject.

There are multiple ways we can build our strategic thinking muscle. Highlighting four of the simple ways which are building blocks to start with. If it reminds you about your good old school days, enjoy :-)

Grouping: At school, we learnt grouping in science when we learnt about species. For example, 'Lion' belongs to the 'Felidae' family, the Felidae family belongs to the category of 'Animals', animals belong to a category of 'living beings' etc. As you can see ‘lion’ is a real living being. Once we group upwards, the families are abstract. What we are inherently trying to do is to have containers which are much more manageable so that our thinking process does not get stuck in complexity.

Strategic thinking at the basic level is about creating these manageable containers so that scale does’nt cripple the thinking process. When we do this, our perspective becomes wider.

In the context of work, as an example, if you are an account/product manager managing your portfolio, if you would ask yourself, what would the future look like for your portfolio, then, all portfolios put together for same customer segment, then all customer segments for your organisation, then all organisations in the same industry, etc, you are practising grouping.

Perceptual positioning: While studying language, we learnt about first person (I), second person(You) and third person(He/she/They).

When we think about our future from our own perspective, then move to what our teams may think about it and then move to what our organisation will think about it, then what our customers would think about it, we build multiple perspectives.

Garnering multiple perspectives is an important skill in strategic thinking as serves to build a holistic picture. Your ability to think about how your stakeholders would think about your future, will serve you well.

Creative thinking: While some purists will separate creative thinking and strategic thinking, in my experience, a dash of creativity will only make the end product better. There are multiple ways to do creative thinking. The very simple one is metaphor:

Consider the below questions

If you are a magician and can create anything you want - what will you create in your future for yourself and your organisation?

If an object/living thing was to encapsulate that

future, what would it be. Describe why.

If you do this as a team, a lot of metaphors emerge. From each one, we can pick a part of the future we all want to belong to.

Metaphors help us use symbols/ images to envision what could be a great future.

Connecting the dots forward: The first 3 building blocks give us the big picture. Whats important is to link them in a way that makes sense to your context. Some of you may be familiar with the activity called “crap talk” we used to do at school as part of extra-curricular.

The way to do crap talk is this - Speak a sentence. Pick a word from the sentence and speak another sentence. Its ok if its not coherent. Go on without stopping for X minutes.

What this activity does is - it creates an ability to join two things that are unrelated just by looking at one common element.

In the work context, once you identify basic elements through big picture thinking, you can make a vision board by connecting common themes/ elements.

Game plan: Now all the above steps will make sense only if we have clear goals/ actions emerging from strategic thinking process. The way to do that is deductive thinking: generate trees from the forest. This is the strategic planning process (goals, game plan of how one reaches their goals) which is one part of the strategic thinking process. Mind maps are useful tools to do this. Most of us are already good at this because when we grow in our career from one role to another, this is what we do everyday.

These are the building blocks of the strategic thinking process. Once we run this process multiple times, our brain starts working the steps without having to do these consciously through the process of generalisation.

If you are to pick one of the above and start today, what would that be?

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