There are some things you don't enjoy or do well. Leaders, when asked confidentially, often tell me strategic thinking falls into this category for different reasons. But that can change. Many clients have been surprised to learn that I hated reading and writing at the beginning of my strategic leadership doctorate. I remember being elated when I received my acceptance letter from the university. Then after seeing the first major assignment was to write a 25-page paper, I felt like I had made a serious mistake. I battled self-limiting beliefs, which required every ounce of determination and perseverance to keep at it. I didn't like it. I wasn't an efficient reader or writer. One of the greatest myths I encounter in coaching leaders and business owners is that their current reality reflects a permanent reality. We don't stay the same. Even passions and proficiency can change. Strategic thinking habits help create organizational value by capitalizing on trends and making days more effective and enjoyable for you and others. These four practical steps can help you improve your passion and proficiency for strategic thinking.
Complications from a lack of strategic thinking
In addition to an apparent lack of alignment and influence, leaders lacking strategic thinking find it harder to get the most out of life and work. When focused on winning the day, it is easy to fall behind, which can be disastrous in a highly competitive marketplace.
Also, followers who are excluded from strategic planning lack buy-in to organizational strategies and quickly become confused about the company's direction and disengaged. A lack of inclusion with strategic thinking lowers quality and creativity. Also, being exclusive can reinforce a toxic culture that values certain groups or organizational levels within a company over others.
Three research studies from Zenger Folkman suggested perceptions of a leader's strategic thinking proficiency can hold back your career. Three separate studies involving over 1300 leaders significantly correlated the promotions of executive leaders with the ability to think strategically.
“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” William Bennis
What is strategic thinking?
Leaders must comprehend various complex situations. Strategic thinking uses critical thinking to consider the fundamental business drivers and challenges specific to an organization. It is about awareness of what could be and the foresight to help the organization be successful.
Strategic thinking involves five leadership competencies often underprioritized and underdeveloped:
Scanning. Looking for weak signals that may not have any immediate bearing on the business.
Visioning. Clarifying the organization's shared purpose and dreams with group benefit.
Reframing. Challenging current assumptions and fresh thinking about future possibilities.
Making sense. An intellectual process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating data.
Systems thinking. A holistic way to investigate how different parts interrelate and contribute to specific potential outcomes.
Strategic thinking is not strategic planning. The following video breaks down the difference between strategic planning and strategic thinking.
4 steps for improving strategic thinking proficiency and passion
The following first three steps cover practical ways you can improve your strategic thinking proficiency. This is intentional because we often dread tasks because we are not proficient. We feel slow or inefficient.
Leaders pressed for time don't like doing things that make them feel incompetent. Embracing failure is helpful, but it doesn't feel good. Improving your proficiency also improves your passion, covered in step 4.
Step 1: Listening.
Start by noticing your strategic thinking proficiency and identify areas where you want to grow. Listen to yourself. Making sense requires critical thinking skills. Various psychometric leadership assessments can measure an executive's critical thinking capability. The Watson Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (WGCTA) is a valid leadership assessment based on recognizing assumptions, evaluating arguments, and drawing conclusions. For more information on the Watson-Glaser critical thinking appraisal, visit www.talentlens.com.
Life was not meant to be done alone. Too often, we fail to consider how we can leverage others to help us develop new habits. Whenever trying to create a new leadership habit, like strategic thinking, leaders need time for deliberate practice and coaching feedback to shape strategic thinking habits beyond motivation and commitment. Partnering with a qualified executive coach is proven to improve strategic thinking skills.
Step 2: Being far-sighted
A failure to consider future environmental changes can create a negative impact. Leaders do not have to accept gambling with the company's future or only rely on reactionary planning approaches in a crisis-driven world. Leaders that are future-ready can avoid costly mistakes by seeing what could be instead of constantly reacting at the last minute. There is a better approach to strategic planning.
Being far-sighted utilizes practices from the field of strategic foresight. Strategic foresight involves looking beyond current experiences and scanning the horizon. This helps leaders identify signs of emerging trends in the margins to prepare for the future. Strategic foresight is a way of thinking critically, engaging, discovering, and acting.
Strategic foresight aims not to predict the future but to enable better decision-making and preparedness. It is a systemic view of change, considering the likely and possible realities. The use of predictive and prescriptive analytics promises improved strategic foresight.
Step 3: Being inclusive.
Leveraging multiple perspectives enhances strategic thinking, creativity, engagement, and strategy quality. Although achieving complete transparency and involving every possible stakeholder is questionably feasible, there is high value for inclusive leaders and organizations.
Before taking an inclusive approach to strategic thinking, senior leadership should come to an agreement on the process, participating stakeholders, and the organization's business vision, values, and mission. A generic inclusive strategic thinking process typically engages others in ideation, refinement, and development.
Step 4: Reframing your MVP.
Before starting something you know you don't like doing, its important to reframe your MVP:
Motivation. Is your motivation about checking a box? Or is your motivation about making a difference? Reasons for strategic thinking matter. It is less likely that your efforts will lead to positive changes without a positive reason.
Vision. How do you see the result of strategic thinking going? Is it leading to the best of what might? Or is what you see a list of all the things that could go wrong? When you anticipate a positive step in the journey, it provides a sense of purpose and direction to inspire your best and achieve success.
Perspective. When the lens through which you perceive strategic thinking is off, your results will turn out poorly. Is your paradigm for strategic thinking that it will provide the best foundation for a healthy culture for your team, lead to business growth, and enhance your effectiveness? Or is your paradigm that it is best to avoid strategic thinking because you need to manage your image, and things will change anyway?
Don't try to make too many changes at once. Make it easy. When creating a new habit, pick one step to make that easy and then gradually increase. Multiple changes at once make creating a new habit more difficult.
Not all work will find its way to being desirable. That's normal. That's when you want to explore leadership delegation. But as you practice these four strategies, you'll likely notice your strategic thinking begins to change. Today, writing and reading are desirable for me, and I'm constantly working on these skills.
So what is your real strategic thinking challenge?
Amrollahi, A., & Rowlands, B. (2017). Collaborative open strategic planning: A method and case study. Information Technology & People (West Linn, Or.), 30(4), 832-852.
Bartell, R. (2011). Before the call: The communication playbook. Hudson House.
Bennis, W. G. (2008). Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality. Journal of Property Management, 73(5), 13.
Folkman, Z. (2021). Strategic thinking: The pathway to the top. Forbes.
Hughes, R., Beatty, K., & Dinwoodie, D. (2014). Becoming a strategic leader: Your role in your organization's enduring success. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.
Kaplan RS, Norton DP. The office of strategy management. Harv Bus Rev. 2005 Oct;83(10):72-80
Nwachukwu, C. E., Chladkova, H., & Olatunji, F. (2018). The relationship between employee commitment to strategy implementation and employee satisfaction. Trends Economics and Management, 12(31), 46-56.