1. Be clear about what strategic thinking is. It involves developing a long term vision about where you want your organisation/department/team to be. This is not simply a creative, wishful thinking exercise. You need to take into account future trends, opportunities, challenges, etc that you know about or can forecast. The strategic thinking process involves steps to analyse and consider each of these aspects. It also requires you to assess where your organisation or department is now in order that you can define the best path to take to realise that future vision and define the steps required to achieve it.
2. Create space and time in which to think and plan. This should be a priority activity and to ensure it happens should be allocated diary time. Ideally this time should blocked out on a regular basis (e.g. fortnightly). See our earlier article Making Time for Leadership.
3. Assess and Appraise: As an initial strategic thinking activity it can be helpful to take stock and ask questions which will refresh/renew your knowledge of your organisation/department/team. For example:
- How does the work really get done around here?
- What works well? Why?
- What doesn't work well? Why?
- Do we know what our colleagues/partners/clients (etc) really think about us?
- What values are displayed most often? How do these reflect our intentions?
- Do staff/the team understand our goals/mission/strategic priorities and connect them meaningfully to what they do?
To do this you can observe, join meetings, walk around and talk to people, and listen. It is useful to detach yourself and attempt to see the organisation/department objectively, as if it is new to you. It can be helpful to consider three main areas - people, process, tools/technology.
Get different ideas, views and perspectives and allow these to challenge your views. Expand your horizons and your networks and try to stay curious and questioning. For example:
- What else is possible here?
- What does success look like in year #? and year #?
- What needs to happen to achieve that? (who? when? how? where?)
- What might get in the way?
- What will early signs of success and failure look like?
- What does the team need to know and what resources will be required to support this?
- Would the achievement of this support the organisation's wider goals?
- What's my core purpose and agenda here?
- How should I/am I communicating that?
- How might I improve that?
Be sure to recognise - and accept - what you don't know as well as what you do. What are the questions you need to ask? A useful technique can be to connect what you know with what you need to know, for example:
"I know.... I'd like to know... Therefore my strategy = I need to..."
4. Thinking Tools: There are numerous tools and techniques that will help you to structure your strategic thinking. The following three are readily accessible and straightforward:
- Zoom In/Zoom Out: Developed by Rosabeth Moss Kanter this is based on alternate use of divergent and convergent thinking. See the HBR summary here.
- Develop your 'T': based upon the notion that rounded and well developed leaders are well developed along both the vertical line (|) i.e. they have a depth of understanding and expertise in a particular business area, and along the horizontal line ( ¯ ) i.e. indicating breadth of understanding across the organisation or business. "The whole “T” represents both deep functional expertise and broad business knowledge and acumen. To be more strategic, ask, “What other experiences/perspectives do I need to be more T-shaped?” By developing the top of your “T” the opportunity and ability to borrow and mash ideas increases, resulting in new strategies" (Tawny Lees, CEO.com).
- SWOT analysis: a widely known and used technique (see here for further guidance)
5. Ensure you continually Plan, Monitor and Evaluate your progress
When you are faced with a chunk of time newly carved out in your calendar, it can help prompt your thinking and shape the time, if you develop a framework to work to, or even a light 'agenda' that will guide your thinking time and define outcomes. The more productive you become with the time and the more value you derive from it, the easier it becomes for this to become a key habit in your leadership career.
In a future article in this series we'll look at how you can create the mindset or head-space with which to be most creative and effective with your thinking time.
If you'd like to discuss our work in executive coaching and leadership development, get in touch - firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01223 655667.