Strategic thinking, as I defined in an earlier article is forward thinking. It combines creativity, innovation, and research to focus on where your organization should be heading to meet the needs of customers today and ideally in the future. It can create a significant competitive advantage in today’s fast-paced, ever-changing world.
Unfortunately, these important capabilities do not appear on their own. They are the result of conscious steps to cultivate them and make them a part of a strategic management process. So, what exactly makes up strategic thinking and how can you tell if you are building it into your operations?
With over 20 years working with organizations to build and execute their strategic plans, we have found five core elements in our most successful clients. Understanding and incorporating these elements into the way you operate is what ultimately leads to stronger strategic thinking skills. Over the next two months I will provide greater detail and examples of each of these capabilities, but first, let me introduce them to you.
The five core elements needed to build your strategic thinking capabilities:
- An Outward Orientation
An outward orientation means taking an ‘outside in’ approach to evaluating what you are doing. It means looking at your activities in relationship to things outside of your department or organization. It is the opposite of operating in isolation. An outward orientation affords you the opportunity to look beyond what you can currently see, and even beyond the needs of your customers, to seek the influences at work in your environment. With an outward orientation, you will be better prepared to understand what you are a part of and how to make proactive steps to act more effectively now and in the future.
- A Long-Range Criteria for Decision Making
Having a long-range criteria for decision making provides the context necessary to evaluate your insights and performance against your ultimate goals. It gives you the confidence to make necessary changes when you might be spinning your wheels or moving away from your ideal destination. Let me be clear, today’s wish list does not establish your long-range criteria. It is derived from a clearly defined vision of success. In other words, it is part of your overall strategic direction. You must know what success looks like before you can define the criteria, but then you must use it regularly in decision-making.
- A Realistic and Aggressive Story
A realistic and aggressive story is one that pulls together the elements of what you are doing now with how you will evolve over time to get to where you ultimately want to go as an organization. For honoring great performance, shifting priorities and inspiring future commitment, there is nothing like a compelling story that people believe in. To have great thinking, you must capture the imagination to unleash their creativity. Think about the master corporate storyteller, Steve Jobs. Although your story doesn’t have to set out to change the world the way Apple’s did, it should inspire, excite and motivate you and your team. It should define a pathway forward that is both relevant to today’s challenges, and aggressive enough to inspire others to act in ways that take you to the next level.
- A Pragmatic, Structured and Disciplined Management System
Another key element is having a way for new ideas to be received, evaluated and either discarded or integrated into current priorities. This sort of deliberation is accomplished through a pragmatic, structured and disciplined management process. Pragmatic, in that you start with your current focus and incorporate new thinking into it rather than letting a new idea derail your current focus. Structured, in that people understand how decisions are made, what roles are in this process and how to participate effectively in it. And disciplined, meaning that it is part of the company’s regular management process. It is as core to how you manage as hiring practices or budgeting. It does not go away when a new manager is hired, or when new priorities are established.
- A High Comfort Level with a Dual Focus
A high comfort level with a dual focus means having the ability to be laser-focused on executing your current priorities (the deliberate set of objectives and strategies that make up your plan) and openness and flexibility to the exploration of emerging ideas. This is probably the most challenging element for leadership teams. The dual focus often creates tension between executing a plan perfectly (for which you might be rewarded) and the possibility that, at any stage, as new ideas emerge, the plan might shift. Having a pragmatic, structured and disciplined management system can significantly increase the comfort level with a dual focus, but in my experience, it is not enough. The leadership team must be comfortable with the sometimes-awkward nature of a dual focus: perfect execution of deliberate strategies and flexibility to integrate emerging strategies when necessary.
This kind of capability doesn’t happen on its own, but we can help. We have a history of helping companies create a culture of strategic thinking that helps them thrive in today’s complicated world.