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6 steps to become a strategic thinker


Joel2.GIFGuest post by Joel H. Dobbs

Joel H. Dobbs is the CEO and President of The Compass Talent Management Group LLC (CTMG), a consulting firm that assists organizations with the identification and development of key talent and with designing organizational strategies and structures to maximize their ability to compete in the business worlds of today and tomorrow. He is also an executive coach and serves as Executive in Residence at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Business.  Joel is also a popular and frequent contributor to the Executive CIO Forum where a version of this article was first published.


"The essence of strategy is choosing to perform activities differently than rivals do."  -        Michael Porter


I was lucky early in my career to work for a then unknown pharmaceutical company, Glaxo Inc.  The US operation was quite small.  Our president, Joe Ruvane, enjoyed walking around the building, sticking his head in people’s offices, and asking how things were going.  He would frequently come into my office and sit and chat for a while, frequently asking questions and freely offering advice and counsel.  One of the things I noticed early on was that he seemed to think differently.  I was, fortunately, astute enough at my then young age to realize that it was this difference was important.  As I observed and talked with him over time I began to realize that his focus was on big picture, long-term issues.  He was a strategic thinker and from my encounters with him and two of his successors I began to learn both the importance and the techniques of strategic thinking, a skill that has served me very well throughout my career.


thinker.PNGOne of the top areas I am asked by coaching and mentoring clients to help them with is becoming better strategic thinkers.  Strategic thinking is one of those skills that are critical for advancement to the executive suite and it is critical if you want to stay there.  Strategic thinking can be learned. I wasn’t born a strategic thinker and you may not have been either but, with practice, you can get better.


How strategic thinkers think

First, realize that successful people think differently than unsuccessful ones because they tend to think more strategically about almost everything. Here are six ways I have observed that successful people think differently:


1. They see the big picture. Successful people see the world around them, how they fit into it and how their actions influence others and how the actions of others influence them. They look beyond themselves. 


2. They focus on successful outcomes. One of Steven Covey’s  Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is “begin with the end in mind.” Successful people tend to envision what a successful result looks like and then focus on how to get there.  Sure, they realize that there may be setbacks and obstacles along the way but these are to be expected.  They deal with these without taking their eyes off of the goal.


3.They build in time for thought and reflection.  Thinking is working.  One of the things that differentiate humans from other animals is our ability for critical and creative thinking and the ability to express and communicate those thoughts.  Making time to think allows us to use those abilities to their maximum.


4. They think creatively.  Successful people and generally are creative people.  They enjoy finding new and better ways to do things.  They enjoy experimenting with ideas and conducting “thought experiments” to test these ideas.


5. They ask, “what if?” and “why not?”  They ask simple questions which are the best ones to get at the heart of an issue or problem.  “What if?” and “Why not?” are two of the most powerful questions one can ask.


6. Finally, they challenge the status quo.  Successful people don’t subscribe to the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality.  In fact, the very idea is foreign to them.


Learning to think like a successful person is the essential first step to learning to be a good strategic thinker. Some of these may require an attitude adjustment on your part before you can master them. Others will require constant effort and practice.  You will find that you cannot do 1,2,4,5, and 6 unless you make time for #3.  Thinking time is important.


The next step is to be mentored, either directly or indirectly, by a good strategic thinker.  In a direct mentoring relationship be specific in asking for help and use your mentor as a sounding board for honing your skills.  Ask them how they would approach situations you are faced with and ask questions to understand how they came to their conclusions.  If you can’t be mentored directly then get indirect mentoring by observing good strategists in action.  I have been mentored by several truly great executives by simply being a keen observer of their actions. 


Read business publications such as the Harvard Business Review, the Sloan Management Review and the Wall Street Journal.  Publications such as these, especially the first two, are written for general managers and are usually written from a strategic perspective.  Many of the articles will stimulate trains of thought that you may have not considered previously.  I also recommend podcasts by The Motley Fool.  Market Foolery and Motley Fool Money are not only entertaining, they are great at teaching strategy.  Because the focus is on stocks the analysts examine competitive, regulatory and market forces that impact stock prices.  These forces are the very issues that good business strategists must learn to consider.


Know the competitive forces that impact your organization.  Use Michael Porter’s “Five Competitive Forces” and map these to your organization.  Ask for help is necessary but understanding these is important.  Dealing with competition is one of the cornerstones of good business strategy.


Finally, don’t forget to make time to think.  Remember, half of strategic thinking is thinking.



Related Links:

Joel's Post on Homework for the Successful IT Leader

Joel's Post on 4 Competencies Every CIO Must Master

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About the Author


Judy Redman has been writing about all areas of technology for more than 20 years.

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