What does this mean in practice? It means that they tend to look at everything through a future-focused lens. When they read or listen to the news, their mind automatically registers how this story could or will mean something for their business in the future, and they think about how to respond. They notice that a change in the external environment could be a threat if they don’t find a powerful mitigating response. They spot something in another industry that they could replicate or adapt in order to disrupt their own industry. They see something that their business could do differently from everyone else and create a powerful competitive advantage.
Idealists and Opportunists
In my experience, there are 2 types of strategic thinker.
The first is the idealist whose focus in on how things should be. This is the person whose focus tends to be on “making the world a better place”. Their form of strategic thinking is about identifying and opportunities to achieve a vision of how things should be. They are driven to be better than anyone else and achieve ideals that are often values based.
The second type of strategic thinker is more of an opportunist. That is, they see opportunities everywhere. Opportunities to do something new. Opportunities to do something differently. Opportunities to turn something to their advantage.
Both types of strategic thinker can be disruptive. The idealist will often produce disruptions that will make the world better for the person in the street. Uber and Airbnb are examples of this. They disrupted their respective industries – and created new business opportunities for millions of people – and arguably made the world a better place for travelers.
The opportunist is likely to produce disruptions that force an advantage or mitigate a threat. A fantastic recent example of this is the Checkers 60/60 delivery app – you can get your groceries delivered within 60 minutes of placing your order. The first Covid19 lockdown in March/April 2020 presented both threats and opportunities – people were anxious about going shopping AND they still needed to obtain groceries. This app was launched in 2019 and had been limping along until lockdown. With lightning speed Checkers ramped up their publicity and it became THE delivery app, with over 1,5 million downloads. They capitalized on an event that presented huge opportunities, even while causing untold hardship – and they did it faster than anyone else. In the process, they created nearly 2000 new jobs at a time when the South African economy was hemorrhaging jobs.
So Strategic Thinking Doesn’t Come Naturally to You?
Natural strategic thinkers will think these thoughts and move into action really quickly. So what do you do if you have to admit that strategic thinking is not your natural strength? There are some specific tactics you could use:
- Make sure that you invite strategic thinkers into your team or into your lane. How do you do this? Include questions that give you a window into how someone thinks in your interview process. You want to hear how they think about the future; the changes they can see or would like to see; the opportunities they might be thinking about in your industry or world. This is not essential at a middle or junior level, but if you are bringing senior people on board, you need some strategic thinkers. Also be aware of the strategic thinkers in the organization around you. They may be outside your team, but that can be an advantage in that they have some distance between themselves and your team’s remit. This is a good thing! They can see things that you and your team can’t see.
- Encourage your team to read widely and make available to them publications that open their minds. Subscribe to the best industry, technology, economic or leadership publications. Make access to these publications widely available and encourage people to come forward with their ideas. Don’t assume that people will waste valuable working hours frittering away their time online! These are adults. They have jobs to do and deliverables to attend to, so focus on their outcomes, and make information available so that they can contribute to the quality of thinking within the business. Too many (most) businesses are completely inwardly focused. You cannot foster disruptive thinking while only looking inward.
- Make sure you also read widely and discipline yourself to read through a lens that either sees opportunities to transform things into more of an ideal – is this an opportunity to better serve the world – or that sees opportunities to turn something to your advantage. This is about reading actively. You are not just taking in information passively. You are actively looking for information that could influence your business decisions.
- Create opportunities for your team to think out loud. Every so often (at least quarterly) set up a team meeting where you will only talk about what is going on in the world, your industry, your customers’ lives and how you can respond to these things in a strategic way. This is about creating possibilities. You will not act on every idea, but you will generate a wealth of ideas, some of which you will act on.
- Never let a good crisis go to waste! In the unrest in Kwazulu Natal in July 2021, whole towns lost their entire shopping district (amongst other things). This meant that whole communities had nowhere to do their shopping short of taking a long and expensive taxi ride to another town. Within a week, one particular retailer had moved containers (a shop in a box) into those areas so that local people could obtain the basics. They looked at that crisis through the lens of “what do our customers need”.
- Get a coach! You may NEVER be a natural strategic thinker, but you can learn the skills and you can develop the discipline. An executive coach is trained to ask exactly the kind of questions that will develop your strategic thinking skills, because they tend to have a focus on your future anyway.
For further reading
For previous articles on strategic thinking, go here.
If you recognise that you need to start developing your strategic thinking skills and disciplines, email me on email@example.com and let’s discuss your coaching programme.