Strategic Thinking in the Workplace

What is Strategic Thinking?

You answer hundreds of emails a week, attend hours of meetings and, like most people, you expend your effort on being as productive as possible. In short, you’re busy dealing with the day to day effort – or tactics – of work.

Being a strategic manager means reflecting on the broader consequence of decisions and actions in such a way as it produces more significant impact. Henry David Thoreau put it this way, “It’s not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?” Every employee can find opportunities to think more strategically.

Key Strategic Thinking Skills in the Workplace

Paul J. H. Schoemaker, Steve Krupp and Samantha Howland shared these six essential leadership skills and how to improve them in an article for Harvard Business Review[1].

Anticipate – “Strategic leaders…are constantly vigilant, honing their ability to anticipate by scanning the environment for signals of change.”1 Netflix began as a movie rental business that shipped physical disks through the mail. In 2007, Netflix anticipated the streaming video on demand movement and began offering movies over the internet to its subscribers despite skepticism from the media industry and scoffing from competitors. Today, Netflix remains the top streaming service.

You may not be making decisions of this significance for your company, but your direct reports and department can benefit by anticipating solutions to challenges – such as technology changes, organizational changes or customer behavior – before they arrive.

Challenge – “Strategic thinkers question the status quo.”1 “We’ve always done it this way, there must be a good reason” or “Of course, the customer wants that feature” are examples of common assumptions that we use to avoid asking hard “why” questions. Instead, a strategic thinker puts every assumption to the test and takes action based on unbiased data and a variety of perspectives.

Interpret – “Instead of reflexively seeing or hearing what you expect, you should synthesize all the input you have. You’ll need to recognize patterns, push through ambiguity and seek new insights.”1 Once you’ve formed the habit of challenging your assumptions, you’ll find an increasing need to make something out of the data you’ve collected to redefine them. This will require skill in analyzing trends and good old fashioned creativity.

The Foundation for Critical Thinking includes this principle of interpretation in its list of 35 Dimensions of Critical Thought: “When giving or being given an interpretation, critical thinkers, recognizing the difference between evidence and interpretation, explore the assumptions on which interpretations are based and propose and evaluate alternative interpretations for their relative strength.”[2]

Decide – “Strategic thinkers…don’t shoot from the hip but follow a disciplined process that balances rigor with speed, considers the trade-offs involved, and takes both short- and long-term goals into account.”1 Tools such as the familiar SWOT analysis or a Cost-Benefit analysis are examples of methods that a strategic thinker might use to execute important decisions. Decisions that affect many people and your business as a whole should take an amount of time equal to its impact. Small, everyday decisions, however, can also benefit from a few moments of thought to consider hidden consequences and creative alternatives.

Align – “Strategic leaders must be adept at finding common ground and achieving buy-in among stakeholders who have disparate views and agendas.”1 Having a plan isn’t going to do anyone much good if you can’t get it executed. The skill of communicating the vision and building enthusiasm is key for a strategic manager.

Learn – “Strategic leaders…promote a culture of inquiry, and they search for the lessons in both successful and unsuccessful outcomes. They study failures…”1 Thomas Edison said “Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.”

A strategic leader chooses to learn from all experiences, even failures. The trick is to do the hard work of really learning what went wrong! Only by studying failures and successes can you understand the factors that created one instead of the other. And only then, will you be able to reproduce or correct those factors the next time.