Tips from business school: Learn to think strategically

The concept ‘strategic thinking’ brings to mind an image of the game of chess. When playing, the aim is to outwit your opponent by making calculated moves. Moves characterised by having an awareness of what you have available in your arsenal, taking action and pre-empting the direction your opponent is likely to take next.

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To be good at chess you need to have knowledge of every aspect of the game – the chess pieces on the board – what are they, how many of each piece do you have, what is the ability of each piece, how can they move on the board. Also important to know which of these yield the most power and thereby protect at all costs as well as which pieces you can sacrifice first if need be. In addition, you need to have an awareness of your level of skill and obviously need to understand the rules of the game in order to play. Knowing the aim of the game is also highly important and two-fold: 1) protect your King at all costs and aim to kill the opponent’s King in order to win. Taking time to consider your options is required through being intuitive and aware/conscious of the details involved. Chess is quite an old game and there are many published/known strategies that can be practiced in preparation, so knowledge of this also comes in handy. Lastly, practice makes for better playing and results in developing confidence. This is a great way of demonstrating what strategic thinking entails, according to my understanding.

‘Strategy’ and ‘Thinking’ are used in combination to form the concept of strategic thinking. These two power words are defined as follows. Strategy involves planning; planning how to 1) gain an advantage; 2) achieve success and/or long-term goals; 3) (in a military setting, which is where the word originates from) meet the enemy in combat in an advantageous position. Alternatively, strategy is described as designing something to 1) have the most effect and/or 2) to be the most useful.

Thinking is defined in a number of ways. The general ideas of a person or group are an indication of their nature of thinking. It also means to have knowledge and to be conscious or aware. It’s characteristic of the process of considering or reasoning about something; considering the ability, quality or number of something. Included in the definition of thinking is to consider action steps needed or wanted and dealing with a situation in a logical manner, whilst avoiding personal feelings and opinions of others when surveying and representing facts. Thinking means to examine something with use of a method and in detail, in order to interpret and explain it. Lastly, thinking is described as either having an idea and/or coming up with an idea.

As a creative person, you ideate as a matter of breathing. What’s your process? It most probably starts with being aware of yourself – what you are drawn to and why. Secondly, it most likely involves the act of being observant in your environment(s). This combination of different types of awareness creates a sweet spot that is ripe for creativity and coming up with ideas.

How can you combine strategy with your thinking and how can it benefit your business? What are the steps involved in developing strategic thinking? Is it even possible to develop this?

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According to cssp.com strategic thinkers do certain activities and practice the following. Set clearly defined objectives and break down each of the listed objectives into tasks, with each task being accompanied with a list of needed resources and a specific timeline. They have a vision that is clearly defined and focused. They tend to practice making use of both the left and right brain. Flexibility is designed into their plans, e.g. by creating benchmarks in their thinking to review progress and are pro-active rather than reactive. They are aware and perceptive, which helps guide their future direction and realise oppurtunities that arise. They are lifelong learners, learning from each of their experiences. Taking time out to spend alone is always factored in. Furthermore, they are committed to and seek advice from others. They are realistic optimists, balancing between being creative, realism and honesty. They are non-judgemental of their own thinking and the thinking of others when ideas are developed or shared. Lastly, they are patient – choosing not to rush to conclusions and judgements.

An HBR article writer (L. Dovey) advises that to ‘Strengthen your strategic muscles’ you need to be more deliberate in your thoughts and actions. How? Reflecting through asking questions, connecting ideas and people never linked before and to make choices.
Alternatively, and in the same vein, Nina Bowman suggests four ways for improving your strategic thinking skills. Firstly, you need to have knowledge – a solid understanding of your industry trends, as well as internal trends happening in your business currently, e.g. routinely checking and paying attention to issues that get raised repeatedly. Secondly, sound strategic by adding more structure to written and verbal communication – which I understand is communicating with clear intent, ensuring that the message is carried through effectively in order to achieve the needed/wanted outcomes. Thirdly, make time for thinking – ask questions. Lastly, take action and embrace conflict.

The author of ‘start with why’ and the presenter of one of the most-watched TED talks shares his thoughts on creating strategy that is easy to implement. According to him the more specific and the clearer the use of language, i.e. specific, clear and simple – the more implementable a strategy can be.

How does all this talk about strategic thinking actually contribute to good management of your business? I think it inspires confidence and clarity with regards to taking action and achieving the results you desire. It takes away the perception of having to face overwhelming obstacles and allows for the best use of your time, instead of feeling like you’re chasing an unattainable goal.

Here are some tools you can use to get started…

1 Strategic Thinking Tool Set

References:

Bowman, N. (2016). 4 Ways to Improve Your Strategic Thinking Skills. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/2016/12/4-ways-to-improve-your-strategic-thinking-skills [Accessed 20 May 2018].

Bradford, R. (2018). Strategic Thinking: 11 Critical Skills Needed. [online] Cssp.com. Available at: http://www.cssp.com/CD0808b/CriticalStrategicThinkingSkills [Accessed 20 May 2018].

Davey, L. (2014). Strengthen Your Strategic Thinking Muscles. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/2014/01/strengthen-your-strategic-thinking-muscles [Accessed 20 May 2018].

 

 

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