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Strategic thinking: what it means and how you do it

Chess board, strategic thinking
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Strategic thinking: what it means and how you do it

Strategic thinking is one of those business terms that can make us freeze. What is it? Why do we need it? And most importantly, how do we do it?

These are some of the questions everywoman Associate Pippa Isbell answered in our January webinar How to become a more strategic thinker (now available to listen back for everywomanNetwork members). Here are the key takeaways.

 

1.   Separate the ‘What?’ from the ‘How?’

“At its heart, strategy is really simple,” says Pippa. “Strategies are core directional choices; tactics are the specific actions you’ll take to implement those choices.” So we can think about strategy as the ‘what’, and tactics as the ‘how’. Where it gets more complicated is that becoming a strategic thinker requires a leader to move away from one set of behaviours and develop new skills – in fact, the transition from tactician to strategist is described in leadership terms as one of seven ‘seismic shifts’.

 

2.   Struggling? You’re not alone

Tacticians are concerned with the detail and their results; they’re ‘doers’. Strategists, by contrast, understand the big picture both as it is now and as it could be. They must stay abreast of market trends and drivers, view problems from multiple perspectives and develop an intuition for what matters and what doesn’t. if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a micromanager, it might be that they’re struggling with this idea of letting go. In reality, few jobs require pure strategy or pure tactics. Doers need to understand the bigger goal, and goal-setters need to understand the impact on the doers. So to get this right, you’ll need to develop an ability to flex between the two roles. This is known as ‘level shifting’.

 

3.   You can start preparing to be a strategic thinker whatever your level

Strategic thinking isn’t purely the domain of leaders; it’s a skill you can develop at any age and stage. But there’s often a disconnect, with 22% of everywomanNetwork members feeling that they can’t be strategic at their level. Strategists need to be well informed and well networked – assets anyone can cultivate. Be curious, read trade media, watch your organisation’s competitors and the industry’s reactions to their announcements. And most importantly, establish good connections.

 

4.   Strategy always starts with a problem

That’s why the very first goal in the strategic process is to identify exactly what problem it is you’re trying to solve as an individual, a team or an organisation. Until you know exactly what the problem is, you can’t identify the most credible solution. “So often in organisations we’re pushed to solve a problem really fast; everybody wants a quick answer so we can move on. But quite often what you’re moving onto is fixing the next problem,” says Pippa Isbell. “Quick fixes are often sticking plasters that may solve an immediate crisis, but don’t move the business on.”

 

5.   Will it make the boat go faster?

An Olympic rowing team set their sights on winning gold at the next Games? They asked themselves over and over again what they could do to win and in the end it boiled down to one simple thing: They had to make their boat go faster than any other boat. Once they had that clearly defined, they were able to focus exclusively on anything and everything they could do to make the boat faster, from the shape of the boat, to its oars, to the strength levels of the rowers. Everything else became peripheral. Problems in the business world are seldom so clear cut, but this story is a good reminder that only when you have a crystal clear ‘what’ can you operate efficiently. 

 

6.   Analyse your strategy to the nth degree

So you think you’ve defined your strategy? Now you’ll need to ensure it’s bullet proof. Is it feasible? Can you and your team actually deliver it? Consider all the resources you’ll need to pull it off and determine whether they’re available. Will it really have the impact required to solve the problem you started out trying to fix? Can it be delivered on time?

 

7.   Winning hearts and minds

Even solid strategies can fail if its leaders fail to effectively communicate to the people who’ll implement it. You’ll need to provide vivid evidence to back up why this is the best option. You’ll need to demonstrate that you’ve explored other ideas and taken into account multiple viewpoints. Remember that you’re talking to human beings and they’re likely to engage more positively with real stories than pure data. Ultimately, you’ll need to be clear what’s in it for them, and why they should want to join you on the journey.

 

Listen to the webinar recording

(everywomanNetwork members only)