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Improve Your Strategic Thinking Skills

Given the complexity of the world, it's no surprise that strategic thinking plays a crucial role in business today. It’s a skill set every leader desires in their staff. But what exactly is strategic thinking (and how is it different from strategic planning)?

In my conversation with Dr. Julia Sloan, author of the definitive book, Learning to Think Strategically, she explained the difference between strategic planning and strategic thinking, and how every manager can develop their strategic thinking skills. Here are three ways to improve your strategic thinking capabilities.

Spend Time Exploring the Problem 

Strategic thinking is not a mere task to be completed; instead, it's an ongoing, imaginative process that helps us better understand the issue or situation. Unlike strategic planning, which is solution-oriented and finite, strategic thinking explores the nature of the problem, helping gain a broader view of what’s really going on and what the potential solutions might be.

Julia recommends teams spend time asking deep dive questions and opening the aperture through divergent lines of thinking. We need to resist the urge to prematurely jump to conclusions. Too often we stay at the surface level of an issue and make assumptions about what’s happening or what will work as we aim to quickly move to implementation. Instead, we should surface assumptions, dig for root causes, and consider multiple viewpoints. 

To help with strategic thinking insight generation, Julia also suggests inviting people with different perspectives, backgrounds and experiences to join the conversation. They can help decision-makers see the situation in a new light or reframe a problem. 

Press Pause or Call A Timeout

It takes courage to question existing plans and assumptions, especially once work is in motion. However, when incorporated effectively, asking the team to “pull up” to reflect can significantly improve a team’s efforts by preventing wasted resources, time and effort.

While most teams tend to wait until a problem has arisen before revisiting its initial plans, Julia suggests leaders regularly pause to reconsider if the assumptions made early in the process still hold true. She recognizes that groupthink can be a powerful, positive force when it’s time to align people for implementation, but it’s also essential not to let groupthink or momentum carry us to unhelpful decisions.

Although it can feel like taking a step backwards, I recently asked a team to revisit our initial assumptions that the strategic planning was based on before we finalized the work ahead. By doing so, they reimagined what goals and strategies we would set now, knowing everything we’ve learned throughout the planning process. Their conclusion was validating; some of our initial plans felt spot on, but others no longer seemed relevant. If I hadn’t suggested we take a pause before going full speed ahead, we would have missed this crucial opportunity to improve our plans.

Develop the 4 Cs of Strategic Thinking

Strategic thinking involves complex, critical, conceptual and creative thinking. When tackling a problem, Julia recommends we look for patterns as we try to make sense of things. We also need to analyze the data and think logically. But, don’t forget about intuition and emotion, which Julia says play an important role in strategic thinking. Consider what your instincts are telling you and add that to the mix.

We should also identify what concepts are at play, which can help us get out of the weeds and view the issue more expansively. Along those same lines, imagination and creativity help open the aperture of what’s possible. Julia’s favorite tip for building your creative thinking skills is to regularly engage in art making. I couldn’t agree more! 

Strategic thinking is not reserved for senior leaders or strategic planning efforts. Every team member has the ability and responsibility to think strategically. Whether is solving customer issues, preparing to launch a new initiative, or designing a new product, strategic thinking can help us better understand our starting point so we can make better decisions, craft better plans, and execute effectively. 

Listen to the entire episode HERE to learn more about conflict management.

Keep up with Dr. Julia Sloan

- Follow Julia on LinkedIn here

- Grab a copy of Julia’s book Learn to Think Strategically here

- Visit Learn Strategic Thinking for more details here

GUEST BONUS: FREE PDF Download: 40 Leadership Tips to Strengthen Strategic Thinking

Dr. Julia-Sloan is happy to offer a four-page PDF outlining 40 leadership tips you can implement to strengthen your strategic thinking. The tips are organized into three categories—before, during, and after a strategy session—and lined up chronologically to help you build your strategic thinking muscles. 

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