Strategic thinking feels like a vague, ungraspable buzzword business-types throw out to sound important. The truth: it’s literally child’s play.
And then, society smashes that out of us.
“We spend a lot of our lives being told what to do,” Clark said. “You’re not going to do very well in grade school if you’re constantly questioning the teacher and asking, why are we doing it this way, wouldn’t it be easier to do it this other way? So, it can be hard to rewire ourselves once we graduate and enter the work world. In fact, for quite a while, it doesn’t even seem necessary. What you’re praised for and promoted for in the early days is being able to master tasks quickly and execute what you’re told to do.”
This is great – at first. When you first start your career, you most likely won’t have the experience or the skills to start questioning everything. But there will reach a point where just following instructions won’t cut it anymore.
“As the famed executive coach Marshall Goldsmith says, ‘what got you here won’t get you there’,” Clark said. “What’s useful in the early part of your career and absolutely mandatory later on is the ability to embrace strategic thinking.”
Because really, strategic thinking comes down to embracing what you were like when you were young, and asking the most important question of all – “why?”. It’s shifting your focus away from getting things done, toward what should be getting done.
Three behaviors that’ll inspire strategic thinking
This is easier said than done. To help you cultivate a more strategic mindset, Clark suggests these three behaviors:
1. Question assumptions
The absolute worst reason to do something a certain way is because “it’s the way it’s always been done.” Don’t accept a task at face value – ask yourself, why do we do it this way? Is there a better way to do it?
“If you can interrogate habits and practices in a targeted way, you can often uncover new ideas and efficiencies that others simply have never thought about,” Clark said.
Dedicating every minute of every day to just getting stuff done sounds really productive. But, it lends no time for strategic thinking, and your improvement and impact will be limited to those tasks.
Instead, sometimes you need to take a step back and observe what’s going on. Who is doing what? Are there efficiencies to be had? How much is each activity really moving the needle? Is someone else doing it better?
“If we spend all our time doing, it means we’re not really in a position to observe others whom we can learn from or ourselves which means we can’t properly refine what we’re doing,” Clark said. “Even more critically, we’re not observing the big picture, the macrotrends and the way the pieces of organizational life fit together. Seeing that, seeing what others aren’t even looking at often can give you unique insights about where and how you and your company can gain a strategic advantage.”
You should spend some time each day reflecting on your day. What part of your day gave you energy? What zapped your energy? What activities really helped the organization move forward? What had almost no impact at all?
“To have a breakthrough idea, it doesn’t take time – it takes space,” Clark said. “A sparkling insight can happen in an instant. We’ve all experienced that sometimes but it happens too rarely because we’re too busy and too preoccupied to let it happen. We have to clear the decks mentally and that means learning to be present and reflect on what we’ve experienced, kick around new ideas and sit with our thoughts. That’s how creativity happens.”
When we first enter the job market, the focus is often on doing. Do this. Do that. Make this happen. We work as hard as we can to prove ourselves.
That’s necessary, but only to a point. Once you’ve reached a certain level in your career, you need to stop focusing so much on just getting things done. Instead, you need to take a step back and ask yourself – how can I most help this organization win? How could I best use my talents or my team’s talents to better achieve our organization’s goals?
The best part of all of this?
Thinking strategically is empowering. Instead of mindlessly following the commands of others, it gives you a chance to be what you were when you were a child: somebody who isn’t afraid to ask why.