How to Think Like a Strategist
If you wanted to improve your strategic thinking skills, where would you begin? What defines the actions and approaches of strategic thinking, and how do you improve? Strategy doesn’t live in the realm of wizardry or magic. Certainly, there are cognitive predispositions that lead more intuitively to a strategic role in an organization, but the brain science of cognition is best left to the scientists. We can’t control the kind of brain we are born with; however, what we can control, and indeed master, are a few tangible skills that will inevitably make you a better strategic thinker, a better systems thinker, and ultimately a better critical thinker in the realm of solving big problems for clients and their brands.
To improve your ability to anticipate, you have to be constantly looking. You need to reactivate your naked observational skills, the skills we had as children to observe, without judgment, and truly see something for what it is. You could call this lens through which we observe the world through a “child’s mind,” or “outside-in perspective” or “alien eyes.” The net is that you have to do it more – and talk about it less – to make it an embedded part of our practice.
Certainly, have proactive and provocative conversations with clients, suppliers, and other stakeholders to understand their need-states and challenges. But you also need to embrace the unconventional – a spontaneous conversation with a stranger, an emerging subculture, the outliers that exist outside the system or outside the norm, to really begin to anticipate the future. This kind of observation takes time, but if you turn it into a part of your work ritual, it will provide you the vision and perspective to see the future and avoid future shock.
The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.Albert Einstein
Make Time for Thinking
I often block out deep thinking time in my calendar, only to be faced with irrational feelings of guilt or insecurity about my need for synthesis. But without taking the time to synthesize what we read, observe or uncover, the repository in our brains is simply data – static, inactionable and ultimately meaningless. It’s an ‘amorphous blob of undoability’, to use a term from Getting Things Done author David Allen.
Rich Horwath, CEO of the Strategic Thinking Institute, discovered that 44% of managers spent most of their time firefighting in cultures that rewarded reactivity and discouraged thoughtfulness. How many innovative, disruptive, or paradigm-shifting ideas does this culture produce? He also uncovered a huge barrier – that 96% of leaders claimed they lacked time for strategic thinking, because they were too busy dealing with the immediate, regardless of its importance. His research points to a fundamental flaw in the way we value thinking, even in organizations that ostensibly ‘think for a living’.
There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say: we know there are some things we do not know.Donald Rumsfeld
Answer Your “Known Unknowns”
In finding solutions to tough challenges, there is rarely one correct answer. The decisions we make to get to a solution aren’t made with complete information. In fact, if we had access to perfect data sets, there would be far fewer problems to solve. The answer would be self-evident. It’s why we call it a strategic point of view: we are providing an expert, educated perspective. And points of view come with inherent risks. Get comfortable with risk, because to take anything from average to amazing, you will get things wrong in the process of getting to right.
Filling the gaps in your knowledge is the best way to bolster your courage in the face of risk.
What don’t we know about a consumer target who is radically different than ourselves? What emergent ingredient trends are about to tip into our category? What landscape positions are truly unoccupied? What category norms might be exploded to uncover newness? These kinds of questions can uncover deep wells of insight and opportunity that rarely show up in a brief.
Forget about best practices. Best practices are usually common practices. And common practices will never add up to a zag, no matter how many of them you apply.Marty Neumeier, Zag
Challenging convention, in whatever sphere, can unlock incredible disruptive possibilities. It can also ruffle feathers of people for whom convention provides a sense of security. They like their ‘known knowns’ – asking them to question the orthodoxy feels like asking them to jump out of a plane. One way to bring your teams along for the ride is to focus on the root causes of a problem rather than the symptoms. We can complain day after day about the symptoms of dysfunction, but the needle doesn’t move. The simple ‘Five Whys’ principle, popularized by Toyota founder Sakichi Toyoda, is a Socratic way to find new solutions by revealing the problem’s root cause. Let’s see it in action applied to an internal problem.
“We never get a proper brief!”
“Because we are afraid to tell the client that the brief is bad.”
“Because we don’t know what a brief looks like when it’s good.”
“Because we haven’t been trained to identify gaps in briefs.”
Bingo. On or before the fifth ‘Why?” you will discover a root cause that is tangible, actionable and precise. The above example halts an endless cycle of hiding a deficient skillset that can easily be taught, and with the right amount of diplomacy, passed onto clients as well. It’s a win-win. Problem solved.
Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.Bill Gates
Interrogate Your Own Assumptions
With a fresh view of trends, current and future-state issues, practice your strategic skills by challenging your own assumptions about a problem. Ask yourself, “How do I broaden what I am currently considering?” or “What am I ignoring or undervaluing in this equation?” to illuminate natural blind spots. Questions are the language of strategy; don’t be afraid to use them, even if you develop a habit of talking to yourself.
‘Specialization’ (i.e., digital, retail, content strategy, communication strategy) provides us a hyper-focused strategic lens. But if you’re repeatedly solving one type of problem, you can lose your ability to see the bigger picture. The remedy is to elevate your commitment to observation (‘alien eyes’) and anticipation (future-state reading). Pulling input from a broad view of the world and seeking out its points of intersection hones our systems thinking skills, and your solution may lie in another part of the system. A mastery of systems thinking is crucial, because it reveals the interconnectedness of everything – the systems or frameworks within which the gears of culture–and brands–turn.
By carving out time for curiosity, suspending judgement and looking at information from diverse or unexpected points of view, you will uncover fresh possibilities, optimized approaches, and new outcomes.
Developing your strategic thinking skills takes three things: time, perseverance and courage. It can be a struggle to lift yourself out of the weeds and feed your curiosity. It can be tough to maintain a commitment to a practice. It can be daunting to take a risk and decide to attempt a new way, especially when the old ways aren’t in urgent disrepair. Creating a more disciplined system of using these tools can make you a better brand builder and a more well-rounded strategic thinker. It can also expand your view of the world and your ability to envision how to make it better.