The 6 Habits of True Strategic Thinkers

Being strategic is a tough job, make no mistake. “We need strategic leaders!” is a pretty constant refrain at every company, large and small. One reason the job is so tough: no one really understands what it entails. It’s hard to be a strategic leader if you don’t know what strategic leaders are supposed to do.

After two decades of advising organizations large and small, Paul J. H. Schoemaker, Founder and Chairman of Decision Strategies Intl, formed a clear idea of what’s required of you in this role. Adaptive strategic leaders — the kind who thrive in today’s uncertain environment – do six things well:

Anticipate Most of the focus at most companies is on what’s directly ahead. The leaders lack “peripheral vision.” This can leave your company vulnerable to rivals who detect and act on ambiguous signals. To anticipate well, you must:

  • Look for game-changing information at the periphery of your industry
  • Search beyond the current boundaries of your business
  • Build wide external networks to help you scan the horizon better

Think Critically– “Conventional wisdom” opens you to fewer raised eyebrows and second guessing. But if you swallow every management fad, herdlike belief, and safe opinion at face value, your company loses all competitive advantage. Critical thinkers question everything. To master this skill you must force yourself to:

  • Reframe problems to get to the bottom of things, in terms of root causes
  • Challenge current beliefs and mindsets, including their own
  • Uncover hypocrisy, manipulation, and bias in organizational decisions

Interpret Ambiguity is unsettling. Faced with it, the temptation is to reach for a fast (and potentially wrongheaded) solution. A good strategic leader holds steady, synthesizing information from many sources before developing a viewpoint. To get good at this, you have to:

  • Seek patterns in multiple sources of data
  • Encourage others to do the same
  • Question prevailing assumptions and test multiple hypotheses simultaneously

Decide– Many leaders fall pretty to “analysis paralysis.” You have to develop processes and enforce them, so that you arrive at a “good enough” position. To do that well, you have to:

  • Carefully frame the decision to get to the crux of the matter
  • Balance speed, rigor, quality and agility. Leave perfection to higher powers
  • Take a stand even with incomplete information and amid diverse views

Align– Total consensus is rare. A strategic leader must foster open dialogue, build trust and engage key stakeholders, especially when views diverge. To pull that off, you need to:

  • Understand what drives other people’s agendas, including what remains hidden
  • Bring tough issues to the surface, even when it’s uncomfortable
  • Assess risk tolerance and follow through to build the necessary support

Learn– As your company grows, honest feedback is harder and harder to come by. You have to do what you can to keep it coming. This is crucial because success and failure–especially failure–are valuable sources of organizational learning. Here’s what you need to do:

  • Encourage and exemplify honest, rigorous debriefs to extract lessons
  • Shift course quickly if you realize you’re off track
  • Celebrate both success and (well-intentioned) failures that provide insight

Do you have what it takes? Obviously, this is a daunting list of tasks, and frankly, no one is born a black belt in all these different skills. But they can be taught and whatever gaps exist in your skill set can be filled in. Learn more here, and in the comments below, let us know how your strategy has developed throughout your career.

 

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