FOCUS ON DEVELOPING THESE KEY ABILITIES
Strategic thinking seldom comes with guidance about how to go about it. So what specific steps can be taken, in order to be more strategic in your current management role?
CHANGE YOUR MINDSET
Begin by changing your mindset. Strategic thinking is not exclusively for senior executives; it should take place at every level of an organisation. It is one of the unwritten parts of all job descriptions. Once you accept that it is an integral part of your job, focus on developing four key abilities which will demonstrate your strategic thinking.
OBSERVE, KNOW AND SEEK OUT TRENDS ASSISTING YOU IN BUSINESS
Try to see the 'big picture'. Heavy workloads and the pace at which it requires to be done, can combine to force employees to adopt a 'head down’ approach, with the result they fail to 'lift up' and observe both the internal and external trends. Critical information, which can help to focus, prioritise and be pro-active in addressing issues are often missed. For example, one senior Marketing Manager approached the job in a transactional way, simply by performing the next marketing task in advertising, rather than recognising that a completely new approach to advertising was needed.
In order to be strategic, you need a solid understanding of the industry context, trends, and business drivers, understand what the end result will be before you actually start, say a type of feeling you get when you know that by buying full cream milk vs fat free will result in fat free being the milk which will be less creamy in your coffee. An intellectual appreciation of the importance of bringing in current data and seeking trends is not enough. You also need to:
Make it a routine exercise to explore the internal trends in your daily work. For example, pay attention to the issues which are raised over and over again in your organisation, then synthesise the common obstacles which your colleagues face. In short, don't complain when specific problems arise, understand why they are problems which reoccur and make a plan to change in order for those problems to be eliminated.
Become pro-active about connecting with peers, both in your organisation and in your industry, to understand their observations of the marketplace. Then share these findings across your network. knowledge is power, the more one connects with like-minded professionals you gain the knowledge and experience and tried and tested practices, which help you make informed decisions.
Appreciate the unique information and perspective which your function provides, then define its impact on the corporate level strategy.
ASK TOUGH QUESTIONS
With a better understanding of trends and issues, practice using strategic thinking by asking 'How can I broaden what I consider?’ Questions are the language of strategy. By becoming more curious, and looking at information from different perspectives, you will be able to see different possibilities, approaches, and potential outcomes. Think of this as 'cause and effect'. What is the cause of a problem or task and what is the effect if it is not fixed vs fixed? It's all in the research, researching a problem and looking at what the impact will be for various departments in your organisation. Think of a sales order delay, this has an impact on delivery to the client, more so, think of the impact it has when your distribution department has to go back to that area and deliver the order. It is not efficient and ultimately costs your company more to perform the action. Places pressure on your whole organisation which can have a ripple effect for future customers. ie: Mistakes could be made down the line.
Working on a project, the Marketing Manager began by asking some difficult questions. What will success look like in the first and third years? What might impact the outcomes negatively and what will be the early signs of success/failure? What do business partners need to understand to ensure its success, and will the outcomes support the broader goals of the organisation? By posing these questions, the Manager was better able to engage with suppliers, colleagues and senior executives early on, in ways which would benefit the project and importantly, would help to shape the perception that the Manager was thoughtful and strategic.
Strategic thinkers also know how to speak the language. They prioritise and sequence their thoughts. They structure verbal and written communication in a way which helps their audience to focus on their core message. They challenge the status quo and get people talking about underlying assumptions. Those who are really skilled are able to walk people through the process of identifying issues, shaping common understanding and framing strategic choices.
If this sounds complex, it is, however, there are ways these skills can be honed:
Add more structure to written and verbal communication. Group, then logically order the main points.
Prime the audience - begin by outlining the over-arching topics you want to address, so they are prepared to engage in a higher-level conversation, rather than just the tactical details. Practice giving the answer first, rather than building up to the main point.
People do not generally realise that the way in which they speak creates the perception they are not strategic. Focus first on conversations with your peers about higher-level issues and leave tactical issues for email. Chose one or two strategic areas on which to focus, and ensure that issues are framed within the context of both your peer’s and the CEO’s top priorities.
ALLOW TIME FOR THINKING, EMBRACE CONFLICT
In a hectic work schedule, it is often difficult to contribute strategically, without making time to reflect on the key issues and to consider options. Evaluate tasks based on urgency and importance. Stop attending meetings which are unnecessary. Block out thinking time on your calendar and honour it, as you would for other meetings.
There are other key skills which need to be practiced. Learn to embrace debate and to invite challenge, without allowing it to become personal, so that you can ask tough questions. To enable this, focus on issues rather than people, and use neutral peers to challenge your thinking. To manage the inevitable ambiguity which can arise when you ask more questions, learn to clarify your decision-making criteria, which in turn will allow you to better act.
Initially, the process of building strategic skills can be uncomfortable. It might feel like kicking up sand in the sea. Your vision might be blurred, as you manage through the unsettling feelings which come with challenging your own assumptions and gaining comfort with conflict and curiosity. However, once the dust settles and you are able to contribute at a higher level, you will be delighted that you took the risk.
These tools will enable you to become a great strategic thinker in your business, you will have the tools which you can use across marketing, manufacturing, finance to legal which will provide you with insight and solutions to become more successful.