When was the last time that you thought about your personal and professional goals and plans? Do you have a clear picture of what you would like to achieve in one, two, or five years? Are you aware of the micro and macro trends around you? Do you have regular checks of what is working well in your life, what’s not?
I’m asking the above questions with the intention. In today’s world where everyone is busy, overloaded with many activities and the expectations are also that we will be as productive as possible, we don’t have time to sit and reflect. In other words – we do have time but we don’t want to schedule a time to think. Without thinking we are living on autopilot and we are not able to have control over our life. This is why we need to know how to think strategically.
What is the strategic thinking?
Strategic thinking is a process, skill, and habit (which we can create), to determine what, when and how we would like to do in our lives for different purposes.
That concept is mainly associated with companies, which need to regularly plan and review their strategies – to earn more money, gain new clients and compete with other firms. However, on a personal level, it’s also crucial. The sad truth is that – we have not been taught how to do this. In fact, in the case of career development, for example, there is something more needed to progress with your career rather than doing something according to plan and templates.
The important point here is that – it is not a one-time activity but an ongoing process, because everything is constantly changing.
The pillars of strategic thinking
I read many articles about strategic thinking and I have defined the most important pillars of it, which also work for me. Let’s take a look at each of them.
Picking a goal
It all starts with the goal that you have in your mind, which you would like to realize in the near, or much more far future. Your imaginary future state (goal) is the direction for your strategy. Without that, for me, planning doesn’t make sense, because how to plan something if we don’t know what that “something” really is?
Defining the right goal is a book-size topic, so I’d like to briefly introduce my strategy for it. The clear goal consists of four components: the what, the why, the when, and the how.
The what – is actually what you would like to achieve. If you have never done (picking a goal) this before, start with a small, achievable thing.
The why – why do you want to achieve this particular thing? Having in mind a purpose is really really helpful
The when – is a composition of two aspects. The first one is to have a defined point in time when you would like to complete your plan, however, the second component is the flexibility, in other words – how much more time you are able to give to your goal if the first deadline is not achievable.
The how – is your strategy and steps that you will be taking to achieve your goal. This is the most complicated aspect of realizing goals because it requires a lot of work and determination.
Analyzing and learning from the past
Planning has a meaning to look into the future, but the past is actually playing a big role here as well. What already happened is the great learning tools.
Past is the key component of strategic thinking. It gives a broader view in terms of what we need to do to avoid the same problems and mistakes. The important point here is to don’t overthink your past events because you may face, for example, negative thoughts. Take as much as you can from your failures and successes. Try to implement the learning from the past into your strategic thinking process.
Map your assets and enemies
Once you pick up the right goal (which I described earlier) it’s really crucial to understand what you need to achieve it. These “things” I called assets and here is everything including skills, information, books, money, and so on. I’d like to propose really simple exercises to determine assets that you have, and those that you need to gain.
Do some kind of brainstorming. Write everything that you need to know and have to achieve your goal. Don’t think (and worry) about if you have it already or not, it doesn’t matter at this stage. Take your time and really think about this – ask people who already achieved this, search for that on the Internet, and so on (by the way, analyzing the past is also helpful here) Probably, the result of that will be overwhelming for you (the number of items on that list), but it is totally fine.
Secondly, take the blank sheet of paper. At the bottom of that write your goal, whatever is it, and whatever you defined earlier. Then, a little below, divide the sheet in half. The left-hand side is named as “What I know and have” and the right-hand side as “What I don’t know and don’t have”.
Finally, move each of the things from the first list into one of the columns. At this moment, be honest with yourself. If you put enough effort into these exercises you will receive a great tool for achieving your goal.
One important note is to also be aware of what might block you on your way. This is your enemy. It can be everything like people, biases, your thoughts, and so on. Consider also this and write all of those at the bottom of the page from the previous step.
Picking a tactic
Probably right now, you have a goal and also a map of your assets, enemies, and things that you need to gain, somehow. This “somehow” is a tactic, that you will use, to move the items from the left to the right column and to eliminate your enemies.
I understand tactics in two ways. The first one is how I will progress toward my goal and how I will measure it. The approach that I’d like to propose is to start with the big plan. By this, I mean setting up milestones and then assessing what skills from your assets list you need to achieve certain checkpoints. Those milestones will allow you to measure progress which is equally important.
The second way of understanding tactics is to know how I plan to gain certain things or skills from my list (and remove enemies). For me, it means to do something, preferably, every day in terms of learning and working on blockers. If you have your assets list consider what small you can do for each of the items.
One more important thing about this topic. Everything here should be properly distributed over time. By this, I mean to avoid a situation where you try to learn many things at the same time or in a short period of time because it’s a great way to burn out. Estimation of needed time is also part of your tactic.
Considering opposing ideas – asking questions
At this stage, you have your plan, described tactic, and action plan. Fantastic, great job! But wait a minute, did you consider asking someone else about your opinion? If not, please do so.
I’m not saying that what you have done already with your planning is not the right approach. I’m just suggesting that someone else’s opinion will be adding value to your strategic thinking process. We are just human, and we are not free from biases so ask for feedback – your work colleague, friend, mentor, or an expert from the area where your goal is.
Don’t be offended if someone tells you that you should change something – consider that as an option. Also, ask yourself questions, challenge yourself as often as possible, it is also a great tool for developing your strategic thinking process.
Doing (every day)
The obvious but probably the most forgotten point. We need to remember to do something with our plan, in other words, take action. Ideally, it should happen every day, however, in the beginning, it won’t be achievable.
First of all, we need to find a time for that “doing”. If you (like me) have a problem with having a regular, everyday, blocked time, consider a soft start – let’s say 10-15 minutes – then you can extend that. It’s all about building the strong habit of taking action from your plan.
Secondly, what you will be doing, should be strongly related to the tactic and plan prepared in advance (and mentioned in the previous pillars).
Observe, adapt, reflect
The next pillar (or you can call it a step) is related to the outcomes of your actions. Collect all of those and use it as a developing tool in your strategic thinking.
From the beginning, you will face some problems, thoughts, ideas, observations, and so on, and this is totally fine.
If something doesn’t work in your plan – change it.
If the environment will change – adapt to it.
If you face any problem – work to overcome it rather than to complain.
If any new idea will come to your mind – note it and maybe use
The thing is to be aware of what is going on around you and implement constant reflection into your routine.
The final one, and actually, I think, should be at the beginning of this list. Everything that I have mentioned earlier you need to repeat regularly. Strategy thinking is an ongoing activity, not one time. You cannot set a plan and expect that everything will be fine – it’s a very rare case, this is the reason why constantly you need to evaluate and work on your strategy thinking pillars.
How to develop strategic thinking skill?
I believe that there are multiple ways that you can approach this topic, however, I’d like to share also what you can do, to be a better, strategy thinker
- Be proactive – proactiveness, for me, means that I’m taking an action without anyone’s ask. On the other hand it helps to prevent the problems. It’s also a behavior that allows you to take an initiative and be better prepared for the future. The easiest way to start is to look for improvements, for example in your daily work, and propose them to your manager.
- Be up to date – the world is changing so fast, so to better shape your plan and actions (as a part of strategy thinking) it’s crucial to be informed about what is going on and catch new concepts and ideas. In terms of your job, for example, you can do that by engaging with other teams in your company, reading news from the industry and so on.
- Prioritize – no matter what your plan is, you will have many different options. The ability to prioritize and make good choices is really crucial to be focused only on what is the most important and the most effective.
- Be willing to take a risk – who doesn’t risk, doesn’t drink champagne, the famous quote states. There is a lot of truth in that statement. Risk is a natural component of your plan and you cannot be afraid of that. If you fail, learn from that and move forward.
- Improve listetning and questioning skill – if you know how to listen effectively, you are able to make better decisions and better shape your plan. Asking questions, on the other hand, allows you to avoid assumptions and assess your strategy on a regular basis.
What is your approach to strategic thinking? Share it in the comments!
Thank you for reading till the end. If you would like to be informed about new articles and receive information about interesting articles you can sign up for my newsletter.