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From the Trenches

If Strategic Thinking Is Not Your Nature, How Can You Nurture?

Mike Sweeney | January 19, 2017
If Strategic Thinking Is Not Your Nature, How Can You Nurture?

Think more strategically. I say the words all the time, but it’s hard to explain what they mean. Why is it so hard? Because I believe strategic thinking is more nature then nurture.

If you are a natural-born leader, artist, or athlete, at some point you realize that it is precisely because these roles come naturally to you that it is very difficult to teach these skills to someone who is not a natural. Try teaching a child with no hand-eye coordination to hit a baseball or someone who has no vision or creativity to become “artistic.”

That being said, someone with at least some natural strategic talent can be developed into a better strategic thinker with a lot of listening, a disciplined shift in mindset, and, of course, a whole lot of hard work. Let’s explore the required mindset shifts.

Think big picture

Instead of: What can I do to benefit the company today? Think: What can I do today that will benefit the company in three years?

Strategic thinkers work short-term, but think long-term. For the strategic thinker, thinking one year ahead is not nearly as interesting as thinking three years ahead. Sure, we all have tasks and projects we need to do, but when the strategic thinker chooses the tasks and projects he or she wants to do, they are often focused on setting the company up for success over a longer period of time.

While strategic thinkers aren’t dismissive of what’s happening now, they are often looking at what’s coming up next. They certainly embrace the current strengths of the company in terms of people, products, and services, but they are often trying to figure out how to attract the next 50 people, how to expand a service line to take advantage of industry trends and internal resources, or how to form strategic relationships to accelerate all of the above. This is why strategic thinkers cringe at the thought of slow, methodical growth — because they believe that by saying no to more, and yes to a select few opportunities, that they can turn the typical growth pattern on its head.

Think interconnected

Instead of: A new CRM platform might really help the sales team. Think: If we add a new CRM to help sales, can we also use it to forecast revenue, manage clients, and track our marketing campaigns?

The notion that the strategic thinker is merely a “big idea” person is a fallacy. As a matter of fact, the best strategic thinkers have to be thinking about implementation, because unless your track record is full of only wins, you will be asked how this big idea is going to happen.

That being said, unlike the tactical thinker, the strategic thinker considers all of the interconnected issues, functions, and objectives associated with an idea. The strategic thinker loves the fact that his or her initiative may touch revenue and expenses, client service and finance, current employees and future employees.

This is the simply the way the strategic thinker is built. Why make a small impact in a limited area when you can make a big impact on multiple areas?

Think choices

Instead of: Ben wants to talk about the website changes today. Think: Website changes are not as important as working on this strategic initiative. I’ll ask Ben to send me a summary that I can read later.

This quality is certainly not restricted to strategic thinkers; however, those with the strategic knack make a practice of saying no to less important and less impactful things in order to say yes to the things which they believe will truly move the needle.

Make no mistake, this requires both extraordinary discipline and the accompanying status to pull it off. Especially for those in creative roles or people who fashion themselves as visionaries or “idea people,” saying no to a great idea in favor of the greater idea is like asking someone with a sweet tooth to say no to a cupcake now, because there’s an entire cake coming later.

Think constantly

Instead of: I’ll present my new product idea during our annual planning session. Think: I need 15 minutes to explain my idea now, because this could have a major impact on current company performance.

Strategic planning is not the same as strategic thinking. Strategic planning — and therefore strategic planners — tend to go into action based on a calendar. If it’s early October, we need to start talking about the next year. If it’s June, we need to evaluate how the current year’s strategic plan is going.

That’s not how the strategic thinker operates. Sure, the strategic thinker embraces the annual or semi-annual planning exercise, but they don’t wait for those events to identify and communicate opportunities. For the strategic thinker, opportunities can just as easily present themselves on January 17 as they can on July 28, because the strategic thinker’s eyes and ears are always open.

Think logic and gut, not data

Instead of: Let me get my analyst to pull some historical data to justify my idea. Think: I know our industry, our customers, our company, our people, and our capabilities. Data be damned, this idea could be a game changer.

Because of our over-obsession with data, too many strategic decisions are now made only if the data is there to support the business case.

Do you think Thomas Jefferson used a bunch of dashboards to decide on the Louisiana Purchase? Do you think Apple’s decision to bring back Steve Jobs was based on personality tests assessing the likelihood of his success? Or how about in 1952 when Boeing CEO Bill Allen decided to launch the 707? He had no orders in place, but believed his customers would buy.

See the problem? The data may have told Jefferson that western expansion wasn’t necessary, Apple that Jobs’ entrepreneurial spirit couldn’t turn an $816 million loss into one of the greatest companies in American history, or Allen that the transatlantic commercial jetliner would not alter both Boeing’s and aviation’s history.

Sometimes the data simply tells an incomplete story, a story that can only be completed by human, thinking strategically.

Being a strategic thinker is not dictated by status, budget, or role. It’s also not easy to fake — but there are ways to train and enhance your strategic thinking skills, starting with embracing the mindsets mentioned above.

If your 2017 marketing could use a heavy dose of strategic thinking, contact us to discuss your strategic marketing plan.

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About Mike Sweeney:

As Right Source’s co-founder and CEO, Mike Sweeney creates, plans, and implements our vision, mission, culture, and strategic direction as well as serving as an advisor to our clients. Mike received a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a major in marketing from the University of Notre Dame and has more than 20 years of experience in B2B marketing strategy, including digital, content, and marketing technology. You can find Mike on LinkedIn.