How To Think Like a Strategist

How To Think Like a Strategist
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I was inspired to write this blog by a question that first appeared on Quora which was ‘How To Develop the Mind of a Strategist?’.  Occasionally as bloggers, we can share our perspective to help others plan their career. While this post may not be for everyone, I hope people thinking about roles in strategy find this useful.

I’ve been a strategist for over a decade. During this time I’ve worked in specific strategy roles, as well as other roles where I’ve used strategy skills acquired over time. I’ve studied strategy, been mentored by established strategists, and also lectured in strategy.

The question as it was written on Quora appealed because it reminds us strategy is also about ‘training the mind’ (or put another way, ‘how we look at things’) as much as it is about ‘getting the job done’.  Here are six lessons on how to think like a strategist.

1. Understand the core strategy process

There are thousands of books on developing strategy. And there are thousands of strategic models. However, there is an essential process that is core to any strategic work, and that is:

  • gathering inputs and data
  • analysing this information
  • exploring possible futures
  • identifying (and evaluating) options for action
  • putting in place a plan for action

A previous lecturer of mine, Dr Joseph Voros, wrote about this process in ‘The Generic Foresight Process‘. I first read this paper many years ago and its concepts have stuck with me to this day. Almost every question that has been asked of me as a strategist, I have answered by starting with this process.

2. Build Your toolkit

Every strategist has acquired their own toolkit over the years. Mine blends strong strategic process with design thinking and collaborating with teams. This just happens be very well suited to the rapid growth of online opportunities and challenges faced by many businesses. I draw upon various methods as part of this toolkit (market analysis, experience reviews, desktop research, scenario planning, etc).

All strategists have toolkits that fit with their unique approach. No toolkit is the same. Each toolkit is developed overtime.

So whatever your toolkit, start adding to it. Even if this means trying methodologies you have not tried before. Within a few years you will have plenty of methods and frameworks to leverage in your particular form of strategy.

3. Develop A Skill In Understanding Drivers

Every strategy starts with a question. What market should we enter? Is this idea commercially viable? What would happen if we didn’t launch this product?

Sometimes you will be the one responsible for asking these questions. Sometimes people will come to you with a question, and you will help them to understand what their question involves.

Because of this it’s worth developing your ability to understand the drivers of businesses and teams. Some teams are motivated by creating commercial returns. Some teams are motivated by improving offerings for customers. Some teams want to create social good.

Whatever the motivation, if you understand what is driving a strategic question, you will also be equipped to explore what is obscured by specific motivations.

For example, the person who wants to launch a product to generate commercial returns, may also need help see what customers expect for the product to be truly attractive.

4. Be Curious

Strategists take pleasure in solving problems and exploring opportunities. They are curious at heart. And if they’re not curious to begin with, they train themselves to be.

I would not say I am naturally curious. But over the years I’ve learnt to enjoy being curious. I’ve learnt a great deal because of that simple word.

When teams say they need to figure out their 18 month plan, offer to help. When leaders tell you they have a hunch there is an opportunity in a new business idea, offer to flesh it out.

Being curious is just one of the many reasons I started to write this blog.

Curiosity is developed by knowing there are many things we don’t know, and venturing into the unknown with a sense of enjoyment to find out more. This is in the mind of the strategist.

5. Practice Visual Strategy

Strategy is about helping people visualise possible futures for action, based on the evidence they have at hand today.

Because the future is intangible (ie. it cannot be held in our hands like the present, or seen like a photograph shows us the past), any way we can help others picture the future will benefit strategy.

Visual strategy is an essential competency for the next era of strategists. Whether this is whiteboarding various pathways for action or creating rich pictures of scenarios, the art of making strategy visual is a competency gaining increasing value.

Dan Roam’s book the ‘The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures‘ is a good example of how to develop skills in this area.

6. Connect Challenges and Opportunities with Commercial Outcomes

Learning all of the skills above will make you a good strategist. I’ve known many good strategists that posses these skills.

If you wish to become a strategist in business, this last lesson is what makes a top strategist.

Any challenge or opportunity can be linked to a commercial outcome. If you can connect questions with commercial outcomes (whether they be negative or positive) you will not be just a good strategist…you will be a great strategist.

With the complex and accelerating issues and opportunities present in the world today, we certainly need keen strategists and thinkers.  Whether you wish to draw upon strategy skills as part of your daily work, or develop a career in strategy, I wish you the best of success.

I'm a digital strategist and channel manager with 15 years experience in digital, across marketing, e-commerce, online sales, digital and mobile app strategy. Companies I've worked for include Coles, ANZ and GlaxoSmithKline. I'm also a graduate and previous sessional lecturer of Strategic Foresight at Swinburne University.
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