What is strategic thinking (Definition and how to develop)?
Updated 30 March 2023
Most workplaces benefit from having people who can think strategically. These individuals are often in managerial or executive positions, and this skill allows them to make informed decisions and plan for the future. Knowing what this skill is and the various benefits it brings to the workplace can help you cultivate it yourself, which is useful if you have managerial or similar aspirations. In this article, we explain what strategic thinking is, its various uses in the workplace and how you can develop this skill for yourself.
What is strategic thinking?
Strategic thinking is a process whereby you can consider various factors and variables, take into account your goals and objectives, and then develop clear plans of action. A big part of this is setting clear and actionable goals, determining how achievable they are and in what time frame, and considering the possible outcomes, setbacks and opportunities that may arise.
This is why strategic thinkers spend a lot of time thinking about risks and possibilities, as these occurrences can have major effects on their plans. A strategic thinker is therefore also greatly concerned with contingency planning, flexibility and feedback mechanisms.
What professions benefit from strategic planning?
Although a strategic mindset is beneficial in almost every workplace and organisation, there are some professions and roles that benefit from it more than others. Generally, any role that involves planning, leadership and decision making is going to require good strategic thinkers. This means that it's more specific to certain types of roles than particular sectors or industries, as these roles often exist in various fields of work. Some roles that benefit from strategic mindsets include:
Managers: Because managers are typically concerned with performance, overseeing teams of individuals and the delivery of certain outputs, thinking strategically can be very beneficial. This is because it allows them to plan the use of their various human and other resources, in addition to developing contingencies and other measures to ensure that work proceeds smoothly.
Procurement and logistics: These individuals are in charge of securing the materials, components and other items that a business needs to function. This often means working with various suppliers and organising deliveries, which greatly benefits from solid strategies as these flows can encounter delays or interruptions.
Marketers: Since marketers often develop long-term marketing plans to achieve certain goals, they generally think strategically to do this. This allows them to develop a sense of direction and consistency, which can be very beneficial to the brand or products they're promoting.
Investment and finance: Whether you're trading on behalf of a client or setting up a long-term investment portfolio, the ability to manoeuvre in both times of calm and volatility requires the ability to effectively plan and organise. This allows investment and finance professionals the ability to reassure their clients and provide the best returns.
Budgeting: If you're responsible for setting and allocating budgets, your job is to maximise the use of a limited resource over a certain period of time. Being able to think strategically can therefore be very useful, especially when there are competing priorities or unforeseen needs to take into account.
What are the main elements of strategic thinking?
Thinking strategically is not a singular process, but rather a series of interrelated processes that complement and reinforce each other. The end result of this is the ability to formulate effective plans, which can put you in a better position to react to anything unexpected. Some of the main elements of this process are as follows:
A good strategic thinker knows what information is relevant and useful. The ability to observe and absorb information is therefore very important for a strategic thinker, as the information gained by effective observation informs their plans and decisions. Thinking strategically often begins with the accumulation and analysis of all available and relevant information.
The development of plans is an important part of formulating strategies, and also the thing that strategic thinkers are best at. These plans are based on present circumstances, the needs of the organisation, and the information acquired through observation and other channels. Planning involves determining what the achievable objectives are, the steps necessary to get there, the potential challenges and opportunities which may arise, and the resources necessary. Planning can also involve a lot of research, such as finding out what competitors are doing and how this may impact your own plans.
Thinking strategically requires the ability to solve problems during both the planning and implementation phases. When developing plans, you may face a limit on the resources available to you or insufficient information. This is a problem that needs solving. Likewise, once you start implementing the plan, you're likely going to encounter additional problems and challenges that require problem-solving skills to resolve. It's often possible to combine problem-solving with planning by developing contingencies and other measures into your plans.
Even the most well-developed plans encounter unexpected circumstances that necessitate change. A good strategic thinker knows how to adapt to changing circumstances and alter their plans accordingly. This is often a big part of the initial planning, whereby you'd ensure that your plan is capable of accommodating changes at short notice. Adaptability is also closely related to observation and problem solving because a strategic thinker can observe how the implementation is going and integrate solutions as and when necessary.
How to improve your cognitive skills
If you're interested in pursuing a role or career that requires the ability to think strategically, there are some things you can do to develop your cognitive skills. Some of these steps are as follows:
1. Learn to observe and collect information
A good place to start is by acquiring all of the relevant information you need to start developing a plan. Initially, it may be challenging to determine what information is relevant, but with practice and re-evaluation, you can quickly develop a capacity for this. Initially, try to accumulate as much information as possible. You can then evaluate the usefulness of each piece of information and set these aside. As you get used to doing this, you're going to instinctively know what information is useful to you.
This information could be feedback from colleagues and managers, information from data and other insights, expectations and estimates from clients and suppliers, and your own evaluation of your organisation or team's capacities. You can do this by taking notes, making recordings or through a multitude of different means.
2. Consult others
Feedback and communication are essential for good planning. It can be beneficial for you to develop a map of sorts that outlines the roles, responsibilities and competencies of various individuals in your organisation. This can help you determine who can contribute and at which stage of the planning process. Consulting others can also be useful if they've implemented similar plans in the past, especially if you're still relatively new to this process. Knowledge is often the strategic planner's greatest asset, and experienced individuals are a vital source of this.
3. Develop a structure
A good plan typically has an effective and easily understandable structure. For instance, you can break it up into distinct phases, such as information gathering, planning, implementation and evaluation. By setting out distinct phases like this, you can more effectively evaluate the potential efficacy of your plan and adjust it accordingly. A structure can also help you to determine what is necessary for successful implementation, including additional information, expertise or resources.
4. Start small
If you're still trying to develop your own skills, consider starting off with smaller plans and executing them as effectively as you can. This could be a minor project in the office to streamline a particular process or overcome an obstacle. Apply all of the major elements of your processes and strategies to develop a workable solution that makes everyone's jobs easier. This allows you to focus on the processes, skills and mindset necessary, thereby allowing you to progress to greater responsibilities later with more confidence in your abilities.
5. Constantly re-evaluate
The development of effective planning skills requires constant improvement and the evaluation of previous successes and failures. Every strategic plan is going to encounter some difficulties and setbacks, and re-evaluating constantly allows you to develop more effective and adaptable plans in future. After you've set out each phase, take some time afterwards to reflect on what you could improve on. Seek feedback from experienced individuals and consider their input, thereby allowing your skills to develop consistently.
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