Amity Institute Of Training & Development

Developing strategic thinking mindset Read Time: 7 mins

Almost two decades back, in the early years of my career, I started hearing the word “Strategy” more and more in town halls, leadership sessions and some meetings. I found it fancy initially not comprehending and did not realize when and how gradually it became a part of my work verbiage and my meetings over years.

The easiest way for me to understand Strategy was relating it to sports or my day-to-day challenges. Like reaching the workplace which was 45 km from home on time every day- what would be my strategy? Would it be to beat the peak traffic time or zone or find a lift or just resort to spending four times the money in an auto-rickshaw and then scramble to balance it for the next 20 days? Or perhaps cracking a certification- how does one go about it the best way possible… I am sure you get the idea.

Strategic planning was a C-Suite executive and management zone subject. You did not have to know more in your early years, and I was happily oblivious just worrying about my bit of work and focusing there. But did that encourage me to speak up and share my ideas or my learnings on a topic of organizational importance or understand how to join the dots and make my contribution matter in the big picture, or did I even see and comprehend the big picture? – well, you know the answer.

It became more and more evident that the best teams and organizations move away from strategic planning in board rooms to practising strategic thinking across all levels.

An insight article from Harvard business mentions- “Good ideas can come from anywhere.” Most of us recognize the wisdom embedded in that statement, yet we still see strategy as the realm of our organization’s senior leaders. That may be because we tend to equate strategic thinking with strategic planning. Although these practices are related and equally necessary for organizational success, they are quite distinct.

In strategic planning, leaders gather data and decide on the path the organization will take to achieve their goals. With strategic thinking, employees at all levels and in all functions continually scan for new ways to contribute to the organization’s success. They apply those insights as they carry out organizational priorities and provide input to the overall strategy. In this way, strategic thinking is part of everyone’s job – whatever their role or level of responsibility.

One may always ask – “Why is it needed?” Why cannot one just be focused on self and think of the next step and work on the short-term goal- solve for the immediate. What do you lose that way? Well, what I have learnt in my experience of working across various roles and teams is that thinking strategically is becoming especially pertinent now with flat and dispersed teams and matrix structures. The merits of enabling and empowering every person in the team to know and work towards the common long-term goal are far-reaching than just the individual’s short-term horse goggled approach leading to reactions to present challenges.

The better leaders/managers involve their teams for deriving their team vision, as well in the process ideation, identifying opportunities by encouraging questions, assumptions and learn from the larger ecosystem. Awareness leads to better and more informed decisions and even if it requires re-alignment of goals which is often the case, it yields better and closer targets as just one of the outcomes. There are several intangible benefits like learning and leaning to agility, entrepreneurship mindset to name a couple more.

But what if it is not my natural style? Michael Porter said- “Strategic Thinking rarely occurs spontaneously”. Strategic thinking like most practices can be learnt, trained on, and improvised. Simple things like thinking deeply about where you want to head, encouraging dissent in teams, being open to tangential thinking, freeing teams to speak up are just some practices you may be already doing.

In terms of how one develops a Strategic Thinking mindset, there is no dearth of books, blogs, articles and talks and models based on research and organizational studies. For Henry Mintzberg, recognized as one of the foremost advocates of Strategic Thinking, the term is not merely alternative nomenclature for everything falling under the umbrella of strategic management; rather, it is a particular way of thinking, with specific characteristics. There are countless ways and practices, and it is a constant evolution and does not happen in isolation. While you can start with what works for you, some of these generic practices can help individuals/teams hone and grow their strategic thinking abilities. Let us explore some of them together.

#1: Working on Questioning Skills: If you want to improve your strategic thinking skills, one of the simplest things you can do is ask more strategic questions. Doing so allows you to exercise your planning skills, become adept at spotting opportunities, and develop a more strategic mindset you can leverage throughout your career. According to the Harvard Business School publication, strategic questions can relate to a challenge, opportunity, or ambiguity you face in your current situation, whether personal or professional. They might, for instance, relate to launching a new business or product, beating a competitor, or structuring your organization for innovation. For example, one can have a better sense of the problem by asking why, what, and how?

Why? – Why is an altitudinal question. It gives the perspective about a situation from a higher ground … above 10000 feet! It helps one to have an eagle-eye view of the situation and can be used effectively to have a detached view of the things - Why are we in this current situation? Why it is important? Why do we need to think about this?

What? – What is the realistic or actual question. It gives the perspective about a situation or a problem – “as it is or gives an “as is “view of things. – What the situation implies for us? What does the future look like?

How? - How is the action question. Whenever we frame a situation as to how, its where we are thinking about the idea - How we can solve this? How can we do this differently?

#2: Questioning your assumptions: Once you have landed on a strategy that can help your organization reach its goals, question your assumptions, and put your hypothesis through rigorous testing. By doing so, you can ensure you are not overlooking another possibility. To develop this skill, get in the habit of questioning yourself any time you are about to make an assertion. Should you consider a different perspective? Is there another possibility you may have overlooked? Ask yourself – Am I missing something? There will still be unknowns or factors which were not counted in. Adapt and adjust and be ready to re-align. You would be better prepared to do this if you have been already factoring in the above aspects.

#3: Working on your ability to connect the dots: Do you remember a game from your childhood where you started with an unrecognizable collection of dots on a page, drew a line between them in just the right way, and an image emerged? Connect-the-dots may be a simple pastime from your youth, but it is also a metaphor for one of the most powerful capabilities of all successful leaders: strategic thinking. Strategists should be uncomfortable with vague concepts like “soft synergy.” They should not accept generalized theories of economic behaviour, and they should try to understand the underlying specific dynamics relevant to their business in an unbiased way. This ability to connect the dots and letting the picture backed by hard facts emerge is a great asset in developing strategic thinking. The ability to connect the dots can be chiselled by being aware of yourself and the environment you are in – informed about the economy, politics, laws, human behaviour etc. The more awareness about varied dimensions shall lead one to connect dots well.

The advantage of having a strategic mindset is learning how to think rather than what to think. Although you might not always have the right answers, strategic thinking skills can empower you to spot new opportunities, address emerging challenges, and plan for future success. Whether in the long- or short-term, a strategic mindset can be developed through self-exploration, critical questioning, and conscious effort to break assumptions. Once you begin practising, it starts to become a habit and develops just like your training routine even after you have met your goal. Think, Practice and Evolve!

To know more about your strategic thinking aptitude and develop strategic mind-set as well take away some best practices, techniques.

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By: Vidya Akkireddy

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