“Good ideas can come from anywhere.” Most of us recognise the wisdom in this quote, yet we still see strategy as the realm of a company’s senior leaders. That may be because of our tendency to equate strategic thinking with strategic planning. Although these practices are related and equally necessary for a company’s success, they are actually quite different.
Strategic planning vs strategic thinking
In strategic planning, leaders gather data and decide on the path the company will take to achieve its goals. With strategic thinking, employees at all levels and in all functions continually scan for new ways to contribute to a company’s success. They apply those insights as they carry out key initiatives 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.
The ability to think strategically has never been so important. With both the uncertainty and the pace of change in todays business environment as well as team members working remotely it’s no longer feasible for people to wait for ‘orders from above.’ All employees must keep an eye on the future, not just react to what’s happening in the present. They need to look beyond their functional areas to become aware of the wider environment in which they operate. They need to be agile learners who identify opportunities by challenging their own and their team’s assumptions about how things work in their company and industry.
How to become a strategic thinker…
Strategic thinking must become a habit. One practice is simply allocating time to think strategically. Another involves inviting dissent on your team. To make strategic decisions, you need people on all sides of an issue to speak their minds. By letting team members know that speaking up is an important part of their jobs, you free them to provide insightful input.
Other strategic thinking practices are useful for training yourself to see opportunities and threats well before they happen. For example, most of us are comfortable using convergent thinking – analysis, logic, and reasoning – to come up with the ‘best’ option from a set of choices. We tend not to be so good at divergent thinking, which involves creating lots of ideas with the goal of finding innovative solutions. This isn’t an either-or process: When you first diverge as a team to generate ideas and then converge on a path forward, you improve your ability to design and implement strategic actions.
Your future should not surprise you….
We know the future will look a lot different from today. No one can predict tomorrow, but by identifying different scenarios, you and your team stretch your thinking about what opportunities and threats might emerge, how they might impact your company, and what you can do about them. This leads to meaningful change rather than make incremental improvements.