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Dani Bacon

Distinction Business Consulting

Organisation Development Consultant

Read more from Dani Bacon

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Navigating the future: A step-by-step for strategic thinking in your team

Better strategic thinking might be on your wishlist but how can we, as leaders, develop it? Dani Bacon and Garin Rouch provide a series of small, medium and large steps to unlock strategic thinking in your team.
photography of tall trees at daytime representing strategic thinking

“You need to be more strategic!” and “You need to think more strategically!" is common feedback for many managers. 

But many struggle to understand where to begin or what to do with this advice. 

Better strategic thinking is on the wish list of many leaders as it’s often seen as the answer to enhancing performance, driving innovation and building sustainable, effective organisations. 

Yet, it is not always entirely clear how to develop strategic thinking. Similarly, learning and development professionals can find it challenging to identify which specific interventions will effectively bridge the gap in strategic thinking skills for their managers. 

What really matters?

If you google the phrase ‘develop strategic thinking’ you’ll be met with thousands of five or six step processes to follow. So, which one is right and how do we cut through the clutter? 

Recent research identified five essential skills and capabilities that underpin strategic thinking in a way that directly contributes to organisation performance.

It's about zooming out to see the entire forest rather than just focusing on individual trees

Capability 1: Systems thinking

Systems thinking can help us see the bigger picture and how everything connects and works together. 

It's about zooming out to see the entire forest rather than just focusing on individual trees and understanding how different parts of our organisations interact and connect with each other. 

To cultivate systems thinking capability in leaders, consider these approaches:

Micro step: Facilitate reflective exercises where leaders map out the interconnectedness of their team’s work to help build an appreciation of the bigger picture.

Medium step: Establish cross-functional projects that involve collaborative problem solving, nudging leaders to consider and integrate diverse perspectives and impacts.

Longer-term step: Implement a programme where leaders can engage with experienced systems thinkers to understand the foundations of the practice and learn how to integrate this holistic approach into their strategic thinking toolkit.

By embedding systems thinking in our organisations, we can develop leaders who excel in identifying patterns to make better strategic decisions and drive organisational success.

Many leaders find themselves constantly firefighting, consumed by the urgency of the day to day

Capability 2: Focused intent

Many leaders find themselves constantly firefighting, consumed by the urgency of the day to day. 

As a result, their attention is scattered, and they can easily lose sight of the bigger picture. 

Strategic thinking, however, requires a laser focus. Leaders need to be able to direct their efforts and resources toward clear, well-defined goals. This means making room for forward-thinking and ruthless prioritisation.

Here are some practical ways to help leaders sharpen their focus:

Micro step: Suggest that leaders take a short 10-minute ‘strategic pause’ every day.  This is an opportunity to reflect on their main strategic priorities and check if their daily actions are still aligned with long-term goals.

Medium step: Help leaders build their prioritisation toolkit by supporting them to apply tools like the MOSCOW framework or the Eisenhower Matrix.

Longer-term step: Support leaders to carry out regular strategic reviews where they can assess progress against goals, recalibrate actions, and reset their focus on key strategic objectives.

By embedding these practices leaders can make the shift from reactive to a strategic perspective. 

Leaders need to be able to direct their efforts and resources toward clear, well-defined goals

Capability 3: Intelligent opportunism

Being an intelligent opportunist is about staying flexible and being ready to take advantage of emergent opportunities. 

It's about mastering the balance of being adaptable, whilst still keeping strategic goals in sight.

Here's how we can help leaders embrace intelligent opportunism:

Micro step: Suggest that leaders set aside some time each week to learn about new ideas or explore areas outside their usual field. This practice can broaden perspectives and create the conditions for innovation.

Medium step: Organise a workshop where leaders can build their skills in scenario planning and trend analysis. This can better equip them to spot and evaluate potential opportunities as they arise.

Longer-term step: Create an environment that rewards experimentation and the exploration of new opportunities. An environment where measured risk is encouraged provided it aligns with your organisation's strategic direction.

By encouraging intelligent opportunism, you can empower your leaders to navigate uncertainty and turn flexibility and foresight into strategic advantage.

Capability 4: Thinking in time horizons

Thinking in time horizons means considering the past, present and future when making decisions. This approach builds a deeper understanding of issues by considering historical context, current realities, and future implications.

Micro step: Encourage leaders to run mini retrospectives reviewing past decisions and outcomes and linking them to current discussions and future planning.

Medium step: Adopt the Three Horizons framework for strategy sessions. This framework invites leaders to consider initiatives and decisions across three-time horizons, to better balance short-term actions with long-term objectives.

Longer-term step: Develop a structured programme that includes training in historical analysis and future scenario planning/ This will ensure leaders are able to effectively apply a time-based perspective to their strategic thinking.

Embracing thinking in time horizons can equip leaders to navigate complexities. This will ensure decisions take account of past lessons, present context and future potential.

It's about mastering the balance of being adaptable, whilst still keeping strategic goals in sight

Capability 5: Evidence-based thinking and exploration

This capability emphasises the importance of drawing on impartial evidence to make decisions rather than rely on gut instinct or falling prey to confirmation bias

It's about adopting a mindset of inquiry and critical evaluation to make informed decisions.

To build confidence with evidence-based decisions consider these approaches:

Micro step: Encourage leaders to adopt the ‘Five Whys’ technique. This problem-solving tool prompts users to dig deeper into each answer to uncover root causes and challenge existing assumptions.

Medium step: Introduce a regular ‘hypothesis-testing’ meeting where teams share their assumptions, design experiments to test these and discuss the results.

Longer-term step: Develop a comprehensive training program in critical thinking and scientific reasoning. This can equip leaders with the tools to question assumptions and make decisions based on evidence.

Implementing evidence-based thinking can transform decision making and support greater strategic clarity.

Taking it step by step

Strategic thinking can help leaders navigate the current complex business landscape to drive innovation, and secure competitive edge. To get started:

  1. Start by integrating micro steps like daily reflective pauses and problem-solving techniques 
  2. Progress to medium-sized actions like adopting the Three Horizons Framework and fostering cross-functional collaboration
  3. Commit to long-term strategies like annual workshops and comprehensive training programmes in critical thinking. This will help ensure a holistic and sustained approach to strategic thinking development

If you enjoyed this, why not read: Responsive strategic workforce planning for future-fit organisations?

Author Profile Picture
Dani Bacon

Organisation Development Consultant

Read more from Dani Bacon

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