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Although we’re going to focus mostly on managers, CEOs and other leaders in industry and the workplace, the idea of becoming a more strategic thinker is something that should appeal to everybody.
Are you the head of a household and worried about charting your financial life until your kids are out of college? Are you a civil servant trying to get the pieces to come together on a years-long public works project? Are you getting a startup off the ground and want to make sure you lay the right foundation?
In each of these cases, you need a strategy to stay one step ahead. Ahead of what? Competitors, potentially. Or maybe just ahead of a deadline. The following five tips should be of especially significant interest for anybody who feels like the rapid growth of a company might end up taking some of the control out of your hands. Strategy isn’t necessarily about exerting white-knuckled control over everything, though. In some cases, it simply gives you leave to engage in creative problem-solving more fearlessly.
To adapt seamlessly instead of trying to stay ahead, in other words. And that takes strategy, too. You might not end up controlling the future, but you’ll certainly learn how to react to it more successfully. Here’s how.
1. Think Critically and Fearlessly
The nice thing about conventional wisdom is the ease and comfortability. Nobody will give you a second look if you don’t ask questions — and for some of us, that’s the point. But probably the worst kept secret in human history is it won’t be the meek who inherit the earth, but rather the bold.
Critical thinking can land you in hot water when you start asking inconvenient questions or making suggestions that challenge the status quo. But you might also chip away at “conventional wisdom” and institutional inertia that’s gone unchallenged for entire generations. You might pick up on opportunities for change that definitely need changing.
You can learn critical thinking skills — and doing so boils down to three things: 1) dissecting problems in greater detail than others instead of accepting “good enough”; 2) the willingness to challenge longstanding beliefs and processes; and 3) an eye for inconsistency, bias and hypocrisy.
Nothing ever changed for the better by playing it safe. Strategizing for the future requires leaders who are fearless when it comes to “looking.”
2. Anticipate the Future in Your Industry
One of the measures of a strategic thinker is how well they seem to anticipate the future. But the future in whose eyes? Start by plugging yourself into your industry in a new way and figuring out the next big thing.
“But that’s the whole trick!” you might be saying. And you’re right — strategy is all about confronting the future, one way or another. But how can a manager, leader or employee convincingly look like they can “see” the future on a consistent basis?
Start by developing your “peripheral vision” by networking and reading industry news and publications regularly. This broader outlook will help you see developments in your industry or among your competitors that might not look like much now, but might turn into big opportunities. But there’s a part two when it comes to broadening your horizons:
3. Find Unlikely Opportunities and Partners Outside Your Industry
You also want to look beyond your industry for inspiration, or a new way of doing things, or just a fresh strategy to shake things up. Apple sells more services than hardware these days. Amazon sells more web hosting than books. Whatever you do well today, there might be a way to divert some of your resources, attention and talent into a new project, service or revenue stream that feels a world away from your current business model, but which might complement it brilliantly.
Now that you’ve gone beyond your industry or vertical, look for networking opportunities and collaboration potential. Successfully strategizing involves laying the foundation for your future, but that doesn’t mean you have to go at it alone, or that your goals can’t easily align with an outside partner for a mutually exclusive venture.
There are lots of examples in industry and marketing of unlikely collaborations between business or nonprofit entities. Projects like these inevitably help both organizations reach a larger audience than they would have alone, not to mention outflank the competition by combining products or services in novel ways.
4. Indulge Your Curiosity About How Things Work
Learning is supposed to be a lifelong experience — and one that continues to pay dividends well into our twilight years. Our ability to excel economically and socially depends a great deal on how willingly we expose ourselves to new information, and on how well we internalize that new information to come up with something new.
Sometimes, learning something new is as simple as opening a Wiki page to discover why a piece of equipment in your facility behaves the way it does. For leaders and managers, indulging your curiosity might involve learning about how your employees accomplish all they do. As companies get larger, the lanes of communication tend to close up a bit, making honest and actionable feedback scarcer in the workplace.
But if everybody is mindful of the greater context, and always looking to learn more about how the pieces all come together, don’t be surprised when you begin unearthing opportunities to enact positive change and practice more strategic, rather than reactive, thinking.
True strategic thinking isn’t possible unless each team within the whole maintains their curiosity about how the rest of the company functions and how each process depends on the others. Moreover, this gives your teams and employees the ability to react to changes more quickly, since they already “plugged in.”
5. Make Decisions Decisively
If you go your whole life without developing your strategic thinking skills, you might be prone to feeling like you don’t have enough information to arrive at a decision. Or maybe it’s the opposite problem — you have enough information at your fingertips, but not quite the will to choose a course.
Indecisiveness is one of the greatest enemies of successful strategy — and success in general. And the more you practice indecisiveness, the more comfortable your current state of mind becomes. “Good enough” will always be good enough — because excellence might require you to go out on a limb. And putting yourself out there is scary.
The thing is, “scary” is essential in business and most other worthwhile pursuits. It can be a tool like any other. Lots of things can hold you back from executing a successful strategy or moving to the next stage in life — but you don’t have to let fear be one of them.
December 18, 2018 at 12:41PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs