In today’s workplace, everyone should learn to think strategically—no matter their position. But effectively moving from manager to leader is where I think strategic thinking matters most.
As you move from being primarily responsible for the completion of a set of tasks or objectives to the alignment of people and processes, it is vital to think beyond your scope of direct influence to the larger organization. And this requires moving from convergent thinking to divergent thinking.
Convergent thinking is what you probably do most of the time and makes you a good problem solver. It is analytical and logical. This concrete thinking allows you to follow the data to make rational decisions. It is primarily focused on the near term and vital in every workplace.
Divergent thinking, on the other hand, is about looking at problems or opportunities from a variety of angles. It requires thinking abstractly to come up with ideas beyond what is directly obvious to everyone else. Typically, it is longer term. It means following tangents that convergent thinkers may think are off-topic and even a waste of time. But allowing for this enables the divergent thinker to come up with creative solutions.
This divergent thinking is important when choosing to think strategically because it is focused beyond the tactical problems of today and more on the potential problems and opportunities of tomorrow.
In a Harvard Business Review article some years back, Nina A. Bowman proposed 4 Ways to Improve Your Strategic Thinking Skills. These include:
- Know: Observe and Seek Trends – Look for themes that you see both in your organization as well as the overall market. Discuss your findings with your peers to better understand what you see.
- Think: Ask the Tough Questions – Ask yourself “How do I broaden what I consider?” This is where the divergent thinking becomes especially helpful as you need to think beyond the usual channels and pathways.
- Speak: Sound Strategic – Prepare your audience by providing a heads up that you want to have a higher-level conversation beyond the usual tactics. And rather than build up to your main point, provide this upfront and then back it up with your facts and ideas.
- Act: Make Time for Thinking and Embrace Conflict – Use the Eisenhower Box to evaluate what is urgent and important. Learn to guard your schedule by removing meetings, saying no to additional requests on your time, and blocking out protected time on your calendar for strategic thinking. You may encounter conflict from others in this, but they may ultimately respect you more by defending your precious time.
Learn to value the time you’re gazing out the window as you think through hard problems. Though you may be embarrassed should someone catch you doing this as opposed to staring at your computer, you should change your mindset and embrace it. This is where the real substance of strategic thinking comes from.
Strategic thinking cannot be done entirely in a vacuum, of course. But don’t let this keep you from first generating your own ideas to see where it takes you. Give yourself the time and space necessary to allow for divergent thinking and novel solutions will present themselves. Then, once you’ve got your thoughts together, bounce them off others to vet them as well as add on to them.
Carving out time for strategic thinking will benefit you and your organization. Just be patient as your results will not be nearly as tangible in the short term. In fact, they may never come to fruition. That doesn’t mean the time spent on them wasn’t important. In fact, it may have been more important to simply rule them out and move on to other potential ideas. And that’s what great leaders are able to do.