You’ve just sat down with your boss to discuss your performance. You lay out all you’ve done in the past few years, highlighting your successes and contributions. You describe how you’ve effectively worked with your team, showing data about how they’ve met their goals consistently since you became their manager. You remind her that your past few performance reviews have been positive, and even note the additional work you’ve taken on to assist colleagues and even your boss herself. Then you make the ask: You’d like a promotion.
Your boss pauses for a moment, then replies,
“You do good work, and you’re a key member of the organization.There’s no question your team benefits with you as their manager. But you’re not quite ready to move up to the next level. Before we can consider you for a new position,you need to learn to think strategically.”
Certainly, this is important feedback, and you have a vague notion of what it means: You’re being asked to consider the big picture and make decisions with that larger view in mind. But this instruction rarely comes with concrete advice on how to do it. What does it mean to think strategically, and how do you develop that skill? This article defines that term and shows the critical ways you can embed strategic thinking into your daily tasks, decision making, and management of others.
What Is Strategic Thinking?
As a manager, you routinely encounter complex situations, difficult problems, and challenging decisions.Your job is to deal with these situations as best you can by using the information you have. In an ideal world, you would have access to all the information you need to navigate through these situations and decisions. But in actuality, you probably only have a limited amount of information to work with. And because you sit in a particular part of your organization, you may have an incomplete view of the forces that lie outside your sphere of influence.
Strategic thinking helps you overcome these limitations. In its most basic sense, strategic thinking is about analyzing opportunities and problems from a broad perspective and understanding the potential impact your actions might have on the future of your organization,your team, or your bottom line. When you think strategically,you lift your head above your day-to-day work and consider the larger environment in which you’re operating.You ask questions and challenge assumptions about how things operate in your company and industry. You gather complex, sometimes ambiguous data and interpret it, and you use the insights you’ve gained to make smart choices and select appropriate courses of action.You also make daily decisions about where you and your team spend your time, and you understand the tradeoffs that come with those decisions.
By thinking this way, you ensure that every choice you make and every action you take drive results that matter.When you and others in your organization think strategically, you generate important benefits:
• You chart a course for your group that aligns with
the overall corporate strategy and execute on it in
your day-to-day work.
• You make smart long-term decisions that complement
and align with decisions that others in your
organization are making.
• You gain your employees’ commitment to supporting
• You boost your group’s performance and maximize
• You focus your daily work so you’re working on
priorities that make the highest contribution
These benefits also yield valuable professional and personal benefits for you, including the respect and appreciation of your supervisor, peers, and direct reports and perhaps that promotion you’ve been seeking.
Who Needs to Think Strategically?
At the most basic level, everyone should think strategically, so they are certain that the work they’re doing directly contributes to the organization’s strategic objectives and bottom line. As a manager, though, it’s especially important to have this broader view, so you can ensure that your team’s time and resources are aligned with the objectives that matter most and create the biggest impact for the company.Strategic thinking is a particularly critical skill for ambitious managers who want to rise up the ranks of their organizations. Senior leaders may be the ones who set an organization’s strategy, but you won’t be promoted into these roles unless you can prove that you know how to think strategically on a regular basis first. Learning how to take the overarching needs and direction of the company into account as you prioritize objectives and manage trade-offs can help you transform from a manager into a strategic leader. Your team should also learn to think strategically. By asking them the right questions and carefully planning their work, you can help them execute on strategic goals and increase productivity and help to develop your workforce so when they’re ready to become managers and leaders themselves, they have the critical skills they need.
Why Is Strategic Thinking So Hard
One reason managers struggle to think strategically is because they feel they simply don’t have the time. And certainly, when you’re faced with immediate demands and deadlines, finding time to carefully consider your actions and decisions in light of strategic objectives can be difficult. But thinking strategically is more than allocating an hour or two per week on your calendar to consider the big picture. It plays a part in everything you do, from setting priorities for your team to planning your daily work to anticipating outcomes of everyday decisions.And it takes a basic understanding of the organization’s underlying purpose and strategy. But according to research,only 14% of organizations he surveyed claimed that their employees had a clear understanding of their company’s strategy and direction, and only 24% felt the strategy was linked to their individual accountabilities and capabilities.
These statistics indicate a severe disconnect between our organizations’ core objectives and what we actually do in our daily work. It takes conscious effort to think strategically on a regular basis. You must actively ask questions and learn about your organization’s key purpose and objectives.You must evaluate the pros and cons and potential repercussions of your decisions and your actions. You may need to let go of projects that your team has been working on for years in favor of new initiatives that could add more value. And in some cases, you may need to decline new opportunities, even if they seem exciting,simply because they are not in line with your priorities.You may be hesitant to make these tough choices, particularly as you face uncertainty and assess any risks associated with your final decision.But you can overcome these challenges by learning the characteristics of a strategic thinker. Individuals who think strategically demonstrate specific personal traits,behaviors, and attitudes, some of which can seem to conflict.These attributes include:
• Curiosity – You’re genuinely interested in what’s going on in your unit, company, and industry and the wider business environment.
• Consistency-You strive to meet goals and pursue these objectives persistently.
• Agility-You’re able to adapt approaches and shift ideas when new information suggests the need to do so.
• Future focus. You constantly consider how the conditions in which your group and company operate may change in the coming months and years. And you keep an eye out for opportunities that may prove valuable in the future as well as threats that may be looming.
• Outward focus. You’re able to identify trends and patterns in your industry and understand their implications. And you’re willing to ask individuals outside your company for feedback to help you improve your business.
• Openness. You welcome new ideas from supervisors,peers, employees, and outside stakeholders such as customers, suppliers, and business partners.
• Breadth. You continually work to broaden your knowledge and experience so you can see connections and patterns across seemingly unrelated fields of knowledge.
• Questioning. You constantly ask yourself if you should be doing what you’re doing whether your team is focused on the right things, if there is something you can stop doing, if you should change your approach, and how what you are doing is creating value. Adapting these qualities will help you “lift up” to consider the larger view, so you can continually ask yourself how your actions create value (or where they don’t) for your company.
By learning to do this regularly, you can maximize your contribution to your organization and set yourself up for growth.