Guberno is a growth strategy advisory firm with a purpose to support leadership teams as they navigate their path to full growth potential.  In my interaction with leaders, I am asked regularly what it takes to become a strategist or a strategic thinker. Is it something you are just born with, or is it something that can be learnt like other individual competencies such as leadership? If the latter, how do you build a strategic thinking competency?

Why strategic thinking is important for leaders?

In a rapidly changing world, the ability to think strategically is even more important. The reality is that any employee who has accountability for time, talent and capital is a strategist – often times without knowing it. Any individual attempting to guide their career is a strategist. Any parent trying to guide the development of their children is a strategist. So the question is rarely one of am I a strategist, but rather how good am I as a strategist, and what can I do to improve the competency.

Four kinds of strategists

It is helpful to think about a scene at your local beach to bring to life four generic types of strategists – each varying in their level of strategic thinking frequency and impact. Firstly, there is the strategist on the beach basking in the sun and largely absorbing what they can tangibly see as activity goes on around them. Secondly, is the snorkeling strategist that is just off the shoreline and is skimming across the surface to see a little under the waterline. While they can see the pretty coral and some colourful fish moving around them, they can’t help but wonder what may lie a bit further in the depths where the light doesn’t penetrate. A little further offshore is the scuba diving strategist who has invested in some additional tools that allow them to sink a bit further into the depths of strategic insight. Finally, there is the free diving strategist, who, through a range of learned and practiced techniques, has achieved a strategic capability that now extends well beyond those of their peers.

Strategy is about making choices

To dissect what is involved to be a strategic thinker it is important to define firstly; what is strategy? At its core, strategy is all about making choices in an environment of uncertainty to achieve some definable future goal. Naturally, to make choices you need to consider alternatives. If there is no uncertainty, then you are unlikely to be thinking strategically. If there is no definable future goal, then there is no purpose for making a choice. In the business world, we seek competitive strategy is the process of making choices in the context of the actions and behaviours of others with whom may be seeking a similar future goal i.e., competitive strategy is a relative concept and only makes sense in the context of the actions of relevant others. The art of successful competitive strategy is the ability to seek and leverage insights that can deliver more value to target constituents than competitors. This search for insights by combining information in new or distinctive ways is the analytical foundation of competitive strategy.

Strategic thinking is an individual competency

Strategic thinking is an individual competency. It is a continual, and at times, unstructured process of trying to make sense of change and uncertainty and interpreting the implications on achieving a desired future goal. This is in comparison to strategic planning that is a collective competency targeted at harnessing and aligning the strategic thinking of individuals to achieve a common goal. Unlike strategic thinking, strategic planning tends to be a little more episodic and to achieve aligned collective objectives needs to be more structured. This is often formalised in organisations through three- or five-year strategic planning processes.

Strategic thinking is not the same as tactical and operational thinking. While strategic thinking is focused on making sense of uncertainty and ambiguity, operational thinking is more connected to the present – it is focused on improvements in productivity, performance, and predictability of existing tangible processes. As an example, strategic thinking is about deciding what technology to adopt to improve efficiency while operational thinking is implementing the technology within the business. There is a useful rule of touch – if you can reach out and touch something, then it is more likely to be tactical rather than strategic.

A strategic mindset is a minimum pre-requisite for a strategic thinker

At the core of strategic thinking is a strategic mindset. It is a way of thinking that is biased towards sensing and sense making of an evolving and uncertain external environment and characterised by;

  • an openness to question underlying or common held assumptions,
  • an outward looking curiosity for insights that comes from observing and questioning,
  • a reflective ability to extract important and relevant signals from the surrounding noise,
  • a willingness to reframe and engage actively in views that may not be your own i.e., step in others’ shoes,
  • an ability to embrace ambiguity and to explore and anticipate 2nd or 3rd order consequences of the more apparent current events, and
  • flexibility and courage to be open to new views, comfortable to re-evaluate, adapt, or to admit you were wrong if the circumstances demand it.

Thankfully, these capabilities underpinning a strategic mindset can be learned, improved, and refined with practice and repetition. In our daily lives there is an abundance of opportunity to be curious, and to question, observe, reflect, reframe, embrace ambiguity, and re-evaluate and adapt. For example, when you are picking up your morning coffee, be curious about the business plan of your barista – how have they positioned themselves to win in a highly competitive market. During your next visit to a shopping mall – observe who is going into the different retailers to think about how clear their target market is. In your next internal marketing meeting, reflect on what the strategy is of a new entrant that may be eroding your market share.

The role of organisations in unleashing strategic thinking

Mastering strategic thinking is no different to learning any new skill or competency, it won’t happen without the dedication of time to improve the craft and find an environment conducive to applying it. This is where organisations can play a role in encouraging the growth of strategic thinking mindsets in their employees and teams. Thinking about how to create a conducive space, and suitable systems and processes to encourage employees to shift thinking from the internal facing tangible into the more outward looking intangible and ambiguous can reap rewards. It will enable more employees to jump off the beach into the water as snorkelling, scuba diving, and free diving strategists.