4 ways to develop your strategic thinking skills

EL1 & EL2 Strategic Thinking & Advanced Problem Solving Workshop

By Tim Stobierski

Think back to the last time you participated in a strategic planning meeting for your organization. You were likely presented with a challenge to solve or goal to achieve.

Do you remember your contributions during that meeting? Did you offer compelling ideas and plot a course of action, or find it difficult to think strategically and develop a solution? Did you have a good idea, but struggle to communicate it in a logical way? Were you an active participant in the conversation, or did others helm it?

Strategic thinking skills are among the most highly sought-after management competencies. Why? Because employees capable of thinking critically, logically, and strategically can have a tremendous impact on a business’s trajectory.

If you want to improve your strategic thinking skills, the good news is that, with the right mindset and practice, you can.

Here are four ways to improve your strategy skills, so the next time you’re involved in a strategic planning meeting, you can ensure your contributions are noticed.

THREE PART DIGITAL WORKSHOP: An Introduction to Data Storytelling & Data Visualisation

What are strategic thinking skills?

Strategic thinking skills are any skills that enable you to use critical thinking to solve complex problems and plan for the future. These skills are essential to accomplish business objectives, overcome obstacles, and address challenges—particularly if they’re projected to take weeks, months, or even years to achieve.

Strategic thinking skills include:

  • Analytical skills: To ideate a strategy that helps your organization reach its objectives, you must be capable of analyzing a variety of inputs—from financial statements and KPIs, to market conditions, emerging business trends, and internal resource allocation. This initial analysis is crucial to creating a strategy that aligns with the current reality facing your organization.
  • Communication skills: Putting a strategy into place for your company, regardless of its size, requires solid communication skills. The ability to communicate complex ideas, collaborate with internal and external stakeholders, build consensus, and ensure everyone is aligned and working toward shared goals are all central to strategic thinking.
  • Problem-solving skills: Strategic planning is often used to solve problems or address challenges, such as missed financial targets, inefficient workflows, or an emerging competitor. Implementing a strategy that addresses the central challenge you face requires you to first understand the problem and its potential solutions. From there, you can craft a strategy that solves it.
  • Planning and management skills: Strategy isn’t just about thinking of a solution—it involves implementation, too. Once data has been analyzed, the problem is understood, and a solution has been identified, you need strong planning and management skills to bring everything together.

WORKSHOP: EL1 & EL2 Strategic Thinking & Advanced Problem Solving

How to improve your strategic thinking skills

1. Ask Strategic Questions

If you want to improve your strategic thinking skills, one of the simplest things you can do is ask more strategic questions. Doing so allows you to exercise your planning skills, become adept at spotting opportunities, and develop a more strategic mindset you can leverage throughout your career.

According to the Harvard Business School Online course Disruptive Strategy, strategic questions can relate to a challenge, opportunity, or ambiguity you face in your current situation, whether personal or professional. They might, for instance, relate to launching a new business or product, beating a competitor, or structuring your organization for innovation.

It’s also important that your questions apply to your role and responsibilities so you can act on them.

Some examples of strategic questions you might ask include:

  • How can we strategically position ourselves to enter a new market?
  • What’s the direction for growth for each of our products or services?
  • Where will the organization’s growth come from in the next five years, and how does it compare with where growth has historically come from?
  • How should the organization respond to the threat presented by potentially disruptive competitors?

2. Observe and Reflect

In addition to asking strategic questions, you need to answer and address them skillfully. One of the most effective ways of accomplishing this is to observe and reflect on your current situation, ensuring any strategy you conceive is grounded in facts.

For example, imagine that the business you work for has begun losing market share for one of its products among its traditional customers. At the same time, it’s gained market share from an entirely new customer base. It’s easy to assume why this might be happening, but doing so can lead you down the wrong path at a critical moment in your organization’s existence.

Instead of blindly following an assumption, gather as much information as possible to use when crafting your strategy. For example, this might include conducting user interviews with new customers to identify the different jobs they hire your product to perform.

Understanding why new customers are attracted to your product can enable you to tailor your marketing strategy and product development to better embrace their needs.

3. Consider Opposing Ideas

Once you’ve landed on a strategy that can help your organization reach its goals, question your assumptions, and put your hypothesis through rigorous testing. By doing so, you can ensure you’re not overlooking another possibility.

Playing devil’s advocate with your ideas can allow you to preemptively identify weaknesses in your argument, and equip you to defend your strategy when others ask questions. It can also help you sharpen the logic skills you need to communicate and execute your strategy.

To develop this skill, get in the habit of questioning yourself any time you’re about to make an assertion. Should you consider a different perspective? Is there another possibility you may have overlooked?

4. Embrace Formal Training

By practicing the methods described above, you can improve your strategic thinking skills at your own pace. However, there are other learning options you can pursue.

If you need to quickly ramp up your strategy skills—to address a pressing need your organization is facing, position yourself for a new role, or finally launch your own business—formal training might be your best option.

Cultivating a strategic mindset

Whether in the long- or short-term, a strategic mindset can be developed through self-exploration, critical questioning, and formal training.

The advantage of having a strategic mindset is learning how to think rather than what to think. Although you might not always have the right answers, strategic thinking skills can empower you to spot new opportunities, address emerging challenges, and plan for future success.

*Tim Stobierski is a marketing specialist and contributing writer for Harvard Business School Online.

*This article first appeared on the online.hbs.edu website

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