Do some people have an innate ability to think strategically, or can such a skill be developed? Based on my research and experience, the answer is the latter. Anyone can develop and competently practice the skill of strategic thinking.
Furthermore, strategic thinking is not a skill that belongs exclusively to people at the top of the organization. For example, the people who see threats and opportunities first are the ones who are in regular contact with the organization’s ecosystem of customers, suppliers, regulators and operations. Everybody in an organization can and should be thinking strategically.
Strategic Thinking Enhances Personal Leadership
People demonstrate leadership when they choose to step into the leadership zone. There, they put the needs of others ahead of their own comforts and use influencing skills rather than management skills or formal authority.
Strategic thinking enhances leadership. A leader who does not think strategically is a cheerleader for operational efficiency. A strategic thinker who does not step into the leadership zone is simply an analyst. Outside the leadership zone, people rely on their formal organizational power and traditional managerial techniques like directing, planning, measuring and controlling.
When thinking strategically, people can notice some uncomfortable truths about the organization. Nearly every member of an audience of project managers raises his or her hand when asked, “How many of you work in organizations that have too many projects assigned to too few people?” This example highlights and uncomfortable truth that every project is important to someone, somewhere in the organization. It also points out a problem that the organization may not have a good strategy, because good strategy provides guidance on where to focus and what to stop doing.
The imperative of leadership is to speak truth to power. It is a challenge that requires courage. One straightforward tip is to ask permission to share your point of view.
How to Develop Good Habits of Mind
Perhaps one of the most important thinkers in history, Benjamin Franklin, used an interesting technique of focusing on one virtue per week. I’ve adapted it to the micro-skills of strategic thinking.
For example, curiosity is a micro-skill. For the next week, look for every opportunity to be curious in your conversations, to be curious in your day-to-day goings-on, and to leave your comfort zone and learn. Even if you only spend five minutes a day or five minutes a week, that’s better than nothing.
The next week, you could focus on the micro-skill of high-quality questions. Leaders lead by asking questions. Many organizations stumble into bad strategy because their leaders don’t ask questions well. An example of a poorly posed question is, “What do I want to do?” Another is, “What is the best practice?”
These questions are mundane, uninspired, uncreative and conventional. A critical goal for a competent strategic thinker is to ask more questions and better questions. Recognizing the role of ambiguity, a strategic thinker will ask, “What questions are we trying to answer?” or, “Are we even asking the right questions?” Expanding your point of view often stimulates these kinds of questions.
Other micro-skills that you can develop to become a more effective leader include ambition, reflection, reframing, storytelling and courage. The regular practice of the Ben Franklin technique is simple but yields many benefits.
Are You Strategic?
Perhaps you have been told in your performance reviews, “You need to be more strategic.” It’s a common criticism, but most people leave the review unsure of what they need to do to eliminate their perceived weakness.
Here’s what you need to know: A person who is strategic holds a more systematic view of the organization and its fit with the external business ecosystem of stakeholders, suppliers, regulators and the like. A person who is strategic is less absorbed in their specialized daily work and more willing to sacrifice their personal efficiency to serve the broader interests of the organization.
Trusted, competent strategic thinkers enable a culture that is agile, empowered and collaborative. Organizations increasingly recognize that increasing the quality and quantity of strategic thinkers — and giving them the resources to be successful — is in the business’ long-term interests.