Strategic Thinking – The Right Development Target

Emotional IntelligenceChristmas is almost here! With that comes the end-of-year reflections on our development goals we set for this year and reconsider those planned for the coming year.  I’d like to make your search for new development targets easy this year and do what a good coach normally wouldn’t: tell you what to do.

The problem with most development plans is that they fail to consider the value they’ll bring to the organization if they’re successful, and so we set small goals that are more behaviorally driven (improve teamwork, etc…).  Those can be important, but real impact comes from real objectives, so let’s talk about what a real objective is and how to work on it.  Here’s the heavy lifting I’m talking about.

Strategic Thinking – Anticipates and plans for future events, trends, problems and opportunities and exercises sound judgment. Makes timely quality decisions, taking a broad range of issues or factors into consideration. Evaluates reasonable risk taking opportunities, consistent with organizational values. Develops creative solutions, and stimulates new ways of thinking, solving problems and providing services.

We see far too little strategic thinking in our clients these days.

Strategic thinking is a difficult leadership skill to learn, because it’s as much a mindset as it is a set of techniques. In the workplace, tactical responses to immediate demands are often rewarded over long term vision and planning (bad systems).  In study after study, the most highly effective leaders are strategic thinkers. Yet in the plethora of courses, books, articles and opinions on the process of strategic planning, the focus is typically on the isolated process or short-term objectives (robbing Peter to pay Paul to make the quarterly numbers).

In contrast, a true strategic leader thinks and acts strategically every day. So how do we develop a leader to think strategically?

Let’s start by talking about what a strategic mindset looks like.  For starters, it requires a leader to take a broad, long-range approach to problem-solving and decision-making through objective analysis, thinking ahead, and planning. That means being able to think in multiple time frames, identifying what they are trying to accomplish over time – and what has to happen now, in six months, in a year, in three years, to get there. It also means thinking systemically.

That means identifying the impact of decisions on various segments of the organization – including internal departments, personnel, suppliers and customers.  The ability to maintain a focus on long range objectives, the process of how to achieve them over time, and an understanding of the implications of decisions for all involved, all the while managing the short-term, is the hallmark of a strategic leader.

You can develop your own strategic mindset with practice and effort. First, make strategic planning sessions a regular part of your week—even if you’re not actually charged with planning anything at the moment. During these planning sessions, stay focused on a few important questions:

  1. What you are trying to accomplish? What is your ultimate goal?
  2. What do you need to do to get from where you are to where you want to be (interim goals, time frames, resources needed, who owns what)?
  3. How will your actions affect other people across the organization?
  4. Anticipating the future, ask yourself what challenges or opportunities may come up? What will the client want? What will the industry be doing?
  5. What does the future look like compared to now? Do you have the people/resources/training to accomplish next year’s goals? How can or are you going get them?
  6. What could happen? Scenario planning, analyzing the pros and cons of any potential course of action against the ultimate goals.

The key is to continuously refine your vision for whatever organization you’re leading and communicate this vision to others. That takes practice and consistency.

In addition to the six activities listed above, here are five more personal attributes that you can work on that will help expand your strategic thinking ability.

  • Maintain a positive outlook: view challenges as opportunities and believe success is possible;
  • Be Curious: be interested in what is going on in your company, department, industry, and wider business environment;
  • Be Flexible: try new approaches and ideas when new information suggests the need to do so (use your curiosity to seek out new ways);
  • Work on seeing around the corner (future focused): think about how your company’s operational conditions that may change in the coming months and years. Remain alert for opportunities that may prove valuable in the future — as well as threats that may be on the horizon;
  • Personal Growth: continually work to broaden your knowledge and experience. Doing so will help you to see connections and patterns across seemingly unrelated fields of knowledge.

Developing a strategic mindset doesn’t happen overnight and takes real effort (and missteps along the way), which is something we see rarely in our business.  So this year do something different, and grow how you think so you can grow what you do! It’s all pretty simple, just not easy.  If it were, anybody could do it.

The question I leave you with is, can you?