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managers drive sustainable success with strategic thinking
“With so many forces at work against making choices and tradeoffs in organizations, a clear intellectual framework to guiding strategy is a necessary counterweight. Moreover, strong leaders willing to make choices are essential.”
– Michael E. Porter, What is Strategy? in Harvard Business Review’s “On Strategy”
In the past, strategic thinking was reserved for long-term organizational goals, like five-year plans that cascaded down to each level of employee, translated into neat steps.
On our blog recently, we’ve been talking about how strategy in organizations is changing. Our research has shown that the top-down only approach to strategy is no longer feasible in the complex, fast-paced, and ever-changing environment that businesses are faced with today.
In particular, we are showing how these demands create the need for a whole new type of leader. In addition to high relationship skills, the successful leader of today exemplifies a strong on-the-ground strategic skill set. These everyday (though not always commonly seen) strategic skills are needed at all levels of the organization – not just in the C-suite.
It may look different from level to level in your organization, but the way we are looking at strategic skill sets, especially for emerging leaders, high potentials, and in-place managers, includes three distinct yet interrelated practice areas:
For this post, we’re focusing on the strategic thinking aspect of strategy as a whole and how that translates to non-executive roles.
Strategic thinking includes the mental process applied by an individual in the context of achieving success in a complex environment and involves the generation and application of unique business insights and opportunities intended to create competitive advantage for an organization. It involves understanding the big picture of the organization and its environment, focusing on longer term objectives, envisioning credible pictures and visions of possibilities and likelihoods, and anticipating future consequences and trends.
With the fast-paced, ever-changing environment most organizations are now operating in, strategic thinking cannot be something that only happens at the top – it simply takes too long and the environment and system will change before any strategic initiatives can be filtered down from higher executives.
Leaders at all levels need to be thinking critically and strategically or the organization will be left overwhelmed by the turbulence of change. Agility is simply called for at all levels.
Strategic Thinking in Practice
While there are many facets to this skill, at its core it involves being able to:
- back up from the immediate and see the bigger picture
- understand where the organization is going
- understand driving influences internal and external to the company
- imagine potential futures for the team, department, division, and organization
Leaders also play a vital role in translating strategy into actionable tactics that individual contributors can understand and commit to. It’s not just strategic thinking that’s important, it’s best when paired with the ability to break down strategic insights for direct reports to act on.
Leaders without this skill or who are weak in it may focus heavily on firefighting the latest issue, maintaining a “heads down in the weeds” mentality and failing to see the larger patterns and influences that are creating challenges in their workgroup.
This is exactly where your individual contributors lose sight of their personal contribution to the organization’s goals. Disengagement is unfortunately not far behind.
Leaders who develop solid strategic thinking demonstrate:
- Strategic agility: they see ahead clearly, anticipate future consequences, and create competitive plans and strategies for their scope of work
- Flexibility when dealing with paradox: they can act in ways that may seem to be contradictory, demonstrate flexibility and adaptability when faced with tough decisions, and maintain balance even when faced with conflicting demands and situational contradictions
- Clarity amid ambiguity: they effectively deal with change, comfortably shift gears, and can decide and act without having a complete picture or data
- Perspective of the bigger organizational picture: they look toward the broadest possible view of an issue, pose future possibilities and scenarios, and discuss multiple aspects of a situation projecting them into possible future results
- Vision and purpose: they communicate a compelling and inspiring vision and sense of core purpose; talk beyond the immediate daily reality; create mileposts and encourage their team as progress is made; and inspire a broad range of people and different levels within the business
Overall, strategic thinking is the first building block in operating strategically at all levels of the organization. With strategic thinking skills, managers and high-potentials are able to better allocate time and resources toward current needs while anticipating and planning for future hurdles as well.