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Henry Watson

Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

Deputy Director of People, Capability and Change

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Three ways to improve your strategic thinking skills


During my career I have written many strategies, as an HR professional, a government policy adviser and even as a school governor. I know how to write a strategy and also know how to teach other people to write strategies.

But what is much harder is to understand is the concept of ‘thinking strategically’ or even ‘being more strategic’. What does that even mean?

Whatever it means, we’re regularly told we need to get better at it. The CIPD identify it as one of the main training needs for middle managers, it’s embedded in its professional framework and the HR profession is concerned about not doing enough.

Strategic thinking…is a constant, ongoing, way of thinking about one’s work.

In my coaching conversations I regularly hear “I’m told I need to be more strategic. But how do I do that?!”.

So over the years I’ve developed a very simple and practical three-point approach to help anyone improve their strategic thinking.

What is ‘strategic thinking’?

Firstly, what do I mean by strategic thinking? At its simplest, it is best described by what it is not: it is not the act of writing or developing a strategy. Rather, it is a constant, ongoing, way of thinking about one’s work.

As Mintzberg puts it, this sort of thinking leads to “an integrated perspective of the enterprise” rather than a particular plan or output. That’s why thinking strategically is essential for everyone, not just senior leaders or those with ‘strategy’ in their job title.

Can it be taught?

The distinction between ‘thinking strategically’ and ‘writing a strategy’ has spawned a whole industry of theories and frameworks.

The one that resonates most with me, is that of management consultant and academic Jeanne Liedtka. Liedtka says that there are five elements to strategic thinking:

  1. Understanding the whole value chain in which you operate – “systems perspective”
  2. Knowing what you (and your organisation) is trying to achieve – “intent focus”
  3. Taking advantage of alternative strategies that may emerge – “intelligent opportunism”
  4. Understanding not only where you’re going but also where you are now and where you’ve come from – “thinking in time”
  5. Being creative (come up with hypotheses) and then critical (test them) – “hypothesis-driven”

I would suggest that there is no job in the world (and certainly none in HR) that would not be done better if the incumbent excelled in those five elements: business partnering advice will be better if you understand the wider context in which you work; new policies will be more effective if you know the history of the area; reward decisions will have more resonance if they’re aligned with wider business objectives.

It’s impossible to think strategically if you don’t know what’s going on, not only in your team or function, but also across the whole organisation…

How to be a strategic thinker

Just as everyone would benefit from thinking strategically, everyone is also capable of it – with a bit of application. There are three things that we can all do that will very quickly help us to think more strategically.

1. Know what’s going on

Every strong strategic thinker is also extremely knowledgeable. This is not necessarily the same as being an ‘expert’. Experts can operate in a narrow field with deep knowledge, whilst strategic thinkers need to know what’s going on across a broad range of areas.

It’s impossible to think strategically if you don’t know what’s going on, not only in your team or function, but also across the whole organisation, industry, profession and wider economy.

If you don’t know, you won’t spot opportunities, have a systems view or know the organisation’s ‘intent’. You’ll be ignorant of the past and you’ll really struggle to come up with new ideas.

It sounds obvious but I’m amazed at how many people tell me they’re too busy to find out what’s going on outside their immediate area or specialism.

Fortunately, doing it is generally quite straightforward: talk to people; read journals and websites; attend conferences; use social media; read your company’s intranet; go to team meetings.

But you do need to make time for it and value it. Encourage it in those around you and remember that PESTLE and SWOT are a way of structuring this knowledge but they don’t help you to acquire it in the first place.

2. Know what you’re trying to achieve

Being ‘intent focused’ is also essential. If you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, how can you possibly make good choices about your work? In fact, how can you make any choices?

So, to think more strategically, you must constantly be asking: “What are we really trying to achieve here?”. Not just in the narrow task you’ve been set but for the longer term.

So make time to look ahead and think through your own work and the contribution it makes to wider goals. If you can’t see the connection, you’re probably not doing the right thing.

Also don’t underestimate the importance of the strategic conversation – whatever your role, you will add value to any discussion by asking: “Are we all clear what we’re really trying to achieve?”.

3. Make good choices that you can easily explain

Strategic thinking is all about making good choices about your work. If you know what’s going on and what you’re trying to achieve, you’re well on your way to doing that.

But there’s a third element that is equally important, which is to take a structured approach to problem solving and decision making.

Such an approach not only takes full advantage of your knowledge but also allows you to talk others through your thought process, to help them understand why you made those choices.

There are many tools that can help with this, including issue trees and 2 x 2 matrices. Learn about them and choose the right one for the task in hand. Remember, you don’t have to always show your working to others but at least you can if it’s required.

Think strategically and make better choices

So there you have it – three ways to make you (and those around you) better at thinking strategically. Better strategic thinking means better day-to-day choices about your work – whatever your role.

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Henry Watson

Deputy Director of People, Capability and Change

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