The Toolbox of Strategic Thinking

Over the years I've worked in a management capacity with dozens of different people at various stages in their careers. While they all had unique talents and strengths, there was one skill that I consistently saw present a challenge regardless of age, experience, or education level.

Strategic thinking is the most important ability that I look for in the people I work with. It is something no leader can succeed without, and yet how many classes or training programs are actively teaching this mindset? In college, I took a class on the works of JRR Tolkein. You have to take calculus in many high school programs. In one day alone I use strategic thinking processes more than I've ever applied the things learned in either of those courses. But where are the opportunities to learn strategic thinking skills outside of an MBA program? They're out there but you have to put in the effort and intention to seek them out- hopefully following my blog is a step in that direction!

While we may not have much formal instruction in it, strategic thinking is all around us and plays a critical role in our lives. It is connected to both the big picture and smaller details of problem-solving. For example, if I needed to cut something and asked you to give me a tool to do that task, how would you respond? Hopefully, first you would ask what it is I need to cut. If it's a tree in my backyard, you'd probably suggest an axe or chainsaw. If it's an article I'd like to save from the newspaper, you'd hand me a pair of scissors. If it was a tumor from someone's body, a scalpel or laser would be considered.

Strategic thinking is what helps us evaluate the tools in our toolbox and select the best response given the subtle nuances of individual situations. Many people rush straight to the solution. They hit "reply" to an email before thinking, jump right into something to get it off their to-do list, or decide what to do before weighing all options.

As you increase your level of professional advancement, you need less subject matter expertise and more ability to think strategically. If you're a CEO, you won’t be able to know everything about each element of your operations. There will likely be people working under you who have more expertise on the front line tasks. You can't know everything about finance and marketing and technology, so at some point you'll have to be comfortable not being the "smartest" person in the room on a particular topic. You will have to think strategically to put the people with the knowledge in the best positions to achieve your broader goals.

As our economy changes, the jobs of the future will rely heavily on this type of thinking which is more difficult to outsource or replicate with technology. Employers are already clamoring for leaders who can think about situations from all angles, develop creative solutions, and anticipate problems. It’d be impossible to sum up everything there is to know about strategic thinking in one blog post, but wanted to start by introducing how important the concept is since I’ll be discussing it often here.

Think of a time you had to think strategically. How have you learned to develop this skill? Do you know anyone who is a strong strategic thinker and if so, how could you learn from them?

Like this topic? Here are some great articles that dive into the issue on a deeper level:

Test Yourself: Are You a Strategic Thinker?

4 Ways to Improve Your Strategic Thinking Skills

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