Five ways to stimulate strategic thinking

You’re on the move; leading an organization, or part of a team just trying to keep up. Whether you’re the one calling the shots or the one receiving them, you can’t afford to not be thinking strategically. Strategic thinking involves setting a clear vision, prioritized goals, and a plan for the skillful deployment of resources to achieve those goals. That should be easy, right? Except that a good strategy requires thoughtful analysis, a consideration of alternatives, and a better than average plan. All those elements take time to develop. And few leaders have much of that. As one CEO told me, “It’s hard to plant trees when your forest is on fire.” His day, like those of many leaders, was filled with putting out the fires of his organization.

So, how can you make time to be more strategic? Here are five suggestions:

  1. Ask a focus question of your team (or yourself). Often we don’t think strategically because we don’t force ourselves to do so. We simply respond to the squeaky wheel and perpetuate a culture that squeaks to get attention. Instead, create a strategic question you can ponder for a week, either alone or with your staff. Select questions that wouldn’t naturally emerge during the course of a normal day. Think about game changers for your organization: What new offering could double our business? Who is the most important prospect we could acquire and why? What partnership would be most beneficial to our business and what would need to be true for that to happen?  Or think about game changers for yourself: What’s the risky career move that I could make and how would I like it if I were to pull it off? Who would I most like to have as a mentor and what would I do with what I learn? Once you’ve identified the focus question for the week, post it prominently so that you’re more likely to dwell on it and record the ideas that come to mind. Your goal with this exercise should be to condition yourself and your team to think strategically, not necessarily adopt every idea that arises from it.
  2. Start a daily journal. I’ve found no more productive form of strategic thinking than recording my thoughts daily over a concentrated period of time. In other posts, I’ve written about the benefits of journaling, the approach I use, and even some questions to jumpstart the journaling process. If you’re not regularly journaling, you may be missing out on an important tool to become more strategic in your thinking.
  3. Read a book. It’s amazing how many leaders I meet that don’t regularly read books. It’s not that they don’t read. They read plenty, but most of it is ingrown thinking about their business, generated by their business. Despite all the differences between successful leaders, the most strategic ones I know share one characteristic: they are all well-read. They read business books, biographies, inspirational works, historical narratives, poetry, and fiction. There’s no source where an inspiration for their life or business cannot materialize. As King Solomon once observed, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Why not recruit the wisdom of others through reading, particularly when it’s easier than ever to read a book on your iPad or listen to it on your iPod?
  4. Join a peer group (or form your own). Get together with your peers once a month to discuss challenges and share ideas. I know a number of CEOs who belong to professionally moderated peer groups and they swear by them. The insight and camaraderie they gain is worth the price of admission. But you don’t need to be a CEO or even join a professional group to benefit from peer-to-peer meet-ups. You just need to be intentional. Ask your business associates and friends if they know others that might want to meet as a group to discuss topics of mutual interest.
  5. Take a personal retreat. Schedule some alone time to rejuvenate and to think away from your current environment. In other words, don’t try this at home, folks. A different environment minimizes your work distractions and reminds you that you’re there for a specific purpose. Though overnight retreats are great, you don’t need to leave town to make a personal retreat effective. A few years ago, I made use of a conference room at a local church on Friday afternoons for about six weeks. I found the end of the week was a great time for my retreats. It was easier for me to get away and the church building was unusually quiet. Those who work there probably decided that Friday afternoons are a good time to get away too.

Thinking more strategically requires an investment; an investment of intention more than time. None of the suggestions above are overly onerous. We make time for what is important. In those times when you’re too busy putting out fires to plant trees, ask yourself, “Where is all this going?” That’s a strategic question worth thinking about.

Share your thoughts: What are other ways you’ve found to stimulate strategic thinking?

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