Want to be a strategic thinker? Decide to be one.
The foundation of strategic thinking is establishing the ability to think strategically. Not everybody, especially early in their career, gets to participate in strategy, but every single one of us can be a strategic thinker. You don’t even need a job. You could be in school and be a strategic thinker. You can ask yourself questions like: Where am I going for graduate school? Or if you’re in school, then ask questions like: What am I going to do after?
Strategic thinking is the mental process you go through when pondering an open-ended question. It’s best done in a low-stress environment where you can freely think and not be easily distracted. Additionally, it’s important to capture ideas as they come in — by paper, journal, computer, etc. This is the time to focus on yourself as an individual and to focus yourself as a team leader. No matter if you’re an entry-level member of an organization or the CEO, we all need to practice strategic thinking.
The key is to ask questions with an open mind and without any preconceptions. Preconceptions lead to fear and clouded thinking. Open-minded thinking allows for creative problem solving and opportunities.
Working ON Versus Working IN Your Business
It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day, and often we don’t look to the future, which is not productive. Strategic thinking is putting some mental time aside to think about our future as individuals, teams and as an overall organization.
I spent 12 years doing corporate turnarounds, and more often than not the companies were not taking the time to think strategically. These companies were failing — losing millions of cash per month — and the people were trapped in day-to-day survival mode.
They didn’t have the best strategic plans, if they had them at all. If there were 10,000 people in the organization, it wasn’t enough for the five people in the executive suite thinking strategically to move the company forward. It was the 10,000 individuals all doing their job a little bit differently that was going to get us there. And it did — several times.
Those successful turnarounds were largely due to the employees and management teams implementing a concept of balancing the work in the business and the work on the business.
Working in the business represents the day-to-day “stuff.” This includes answering to a manager, answering customer calls, developing reports, replying to emails, paying bills, managing employees, and more. Working on the business is a bit different. It’s putting some time aside to say, Do I have a strategic plan for my department and my team? Do I have an account plan? I’ve been growing this account from $50,000 to $100,000 to $150,000. Is it just happening or have I really thought about it?
What might come out of working on the business are marketing and sales plans, professional development training, account growth strategies, or employee recognition programs.
Four Ways To Start Thinking Strategically About Your Goals
1. Find balance.
It’s easy to say “strategic thinking sounds like a great idea,” and then open your inbox to 40 new emails that distract you. You also can’t think “big” all day and forget about the people calling on you who need your support now.
It’s a balance, and that balance will make you successful. It should be a 90/10 balance. If you can spend 90% of your time focused in your business and 10% of your time on your business, then you can start to think strategically. By doing this, you will find that you become 90% more productive.
A lot of people think that if you put 10% of that time aside, they will not get their “regular job” done. However, this is not the case. If you do a good job of thinking strategically, you will find yourself asking, “How can I do my job better?” Or you may sit back and say, “Why am I even doing this task?” I often find that I gain back hours by pondering these thoughts and coming up with better ways to get the job done.
2. Be proactive.
Strategic thinking is never going to show up on your calendar. Most bosses aren’t going to come to you and say, “Hey, why don’t you take Friday afternoon off and go work in a coffee house to focus on some strategic thinking?” If you work 40 hours a week, that means you should be putting four hours per week aside to think more strategically. Adjust that math according to your workload.
3. Win the daily challenge.
If you’ve put some time aside to think strategically, it does not mean that all of the requests for your attention are going to magically disappear. You’re still going to have emails, texts, customers, leaders and employees coming at you. However, you will have to determine how you win the daily challenge and say “no”. Be selfish and schedule time that is strictly time for thinking strategically. Limiting distractions and informing others of your intent can be helpful.
4. Manufacture time.
Commit to one half day per week, one full day every other week, or get in an hour early to steal some strategic time. You’ve got to figure out how to manufacture time because it doesn’t just sit there for you to take. However, if you look hard enough, you can find it.