There’s no question that strategic thinking is a critical area for any leader to develop. It’s particularly important in the technology domain since ICT plays such a strategic role in enabling business outcomes and can mean the difference between success and failure. Not only do technology platforms and automation facilitate effective communication and collaboration across the organisation, but they can become a competitive differentiator by enabling quality decisions and a culture of empowerment.
The higher you climb the corporate ladder, the more strategic your role becomes and the greater the impact of your decisions on the business. Your ability to refine and enhance your strategic thinking will reap rewards both for you as a leader and for the organisation itself. Conversely, a lack of strategic thinking can have enormous repercussions for an organisation’s ability to manage risk, plan for the future and survive or thrive in the long term.
This article is aimed at existing or emerging leaders who recognise they need to further develop their strategic leadership capability and being.
When Strategic Thinking is Missing
Early on in my career in the ICT sector, I worked for a major technology distribution company. The business employed skilled and capable people, but the leader tended to micro-manage them, obsessing over details rather than stepping back and empowering them to get the job done.
In the two years I worked there, the business grew rapidly from 300 staff to over 600 staff, and then imploded because of a lack of systems and structures to enable and sustain the growth. By the time I left, it had shrunk back to 300 staff and the writing was on the wall.
While that leader was a pioneer in many ways, he failed to demonstrate the capacity to lead and think strategically. He struggled to articulate his vision in a way that aligned and empowered his people to deliver, often focusing on specifics and wanting to dictate how things should happen. Instead of identifying emerging patterns and potential risks needing to be addressed, he tried to control outcomes. As a result, the business was reactive, failed to capitalise on emerging opportunities and ultimately failed.
Fortunately, your capacity as a strategically-focused leader can be developed if you are willing to invest the time and discipline required to expand your thinking and enhance your Being. This article is for people who know they need to strengthen their ability to think strategically as well for those who want to hold leadership roles in the future.
Let’s now explore the key elements that contribute to strategic leadership.
Foundations of Strategic Thinking
Prioritise & Focus – Strategic thinking requires focused time and attention. It cannot happen when you’re busy implementing or chasing down deadlines. If you want to improve your strategic mindset, then you must be responsible and make it a priority, allocating time away from the day-to-day so you can focus on longer-term issues and big picture thinking. Set aside a block of 2-3 hours each week when you can step away from your busy routine and tune into your Higher Purpose and Vision, focusing on issues like vision alignment, strategic initiatives, professional development, succession planning, innovation and more. Turn off your phone, eliminate distractions and ensure that you won’t be interrupted. The time you invest in this practice will reap rewards well into the future.
Broaden Your Perspective – Effective strategic thinking requires that we step out of the weeds and climb to the top of the nearest mountain (figuratively at least) in order to see the big picture. A different perspective brings new insights and distinctions. Not only does this mean considering longer-term issues (as opposed to short term tactical concerns), but also looking at the complete eco-system – all the constituent functions and their various needs, relationships and interdependencies.
In his book “Being”, Ashkan Tashvir introduces the concept of the Perspective Quadrant, a simple model that helps to focus your thinking on the key individuals and groups involved in an issue, as well as considering the global perspective (eco-system). Tashvir also advocates stepping above and looking down from what he calls the Leader Perspective (a 40,000 feet view) rather than looking out from within any particular function. By considering the needs and drivers of each function or key stakeholders, you’re exploring diverse points of view and alternative approaches to enhance your insights and decision-making.
Look for Patterns & Trends – Strategic thinking is also a powerful way to identify emerging patterns and trends. This might include recognising changing consumer behaviours, planning for the impacts of emerging technologies, or identifying potential risks that need to be addressed or mitigated. After noting a trend or possible risk, take time to consider and explore different scenarios and impacts that might arise from each development, planning strategies and policies to use in each case if they become necessary. Companies that had previously considered scenarios that might involve office closures or remote working were better prepared and able to respond more quickly when the pandemic occurred.
Align to the Vision – Strategic thinking is about ensuring you have clear plans and structures that will support you in achieving the core mission and key objectives of the organisation. It will guide you in setting priorities and then developing specific targets and milestones that can be progressed and tracked along the way to your goals. And, when done effectively, it will also help you to formulate ways to counter the likely hurdles and roadblocks that might occur, so you can maximise your chances of success.
Since we rely on our leaders to provide direction and prepare us for what’s coming, strategic thinking is not just a preference, but an absolute responsibility. Your people are looking to you to guide them, identify pitfalls and often to come up with solutions to overcome them.
That doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers or develop all the strategies on your own. While strategic thinking can certainly be done solo, and time alone spent thinking should be a regular element of every technology leader’s schedule, it also works well as a group endeavour.
Strategy sessions that bring together your entire team, a group of subject matter experts (SMEs) or people with different perspectives, like key stakeholders or customers, will all help you to flesh out your thinking and find better solutions to problems.
Even when you are thinking on your own, you can incorporate other points of view by playing Devil’s Advocate (taking an opposing view) or by imagining yourself in the position of a peer, stakeholder, customer or Board member etc.
Start by prioritising the development of your strategic leadership and schedule time each week for strategic thinking, making this time non-negotiable. Choose key areas of your responsibility, such as people development, the technology roadmap or a key project, and consider it from different directions and perspectives, documenting any thoughts or concerns and developing a list of items needing further exploration or follow-up. Partner with SMEs where needed to fill gaps in your understanding and broaden your perspective.
Over time, you’ll build a more complete picture of each area, along with deeper insights that will enable you to ask better questions and make more thoughtful and effective decisions.
If you continue to apply these principles consistently, you’ll find your strategic mindset will be greatly enhanced, contributing significantly to your effectiveness as a technology leader or enabling you to develop into a leadership role.