Imagine you’re sitting down by a river and all of a sudden people start floating by, calling out for you to help them. You pull those people out of the water, but then you notice more people coming downstream.
At this point, you’ve got two choices: Keep trying your best to pull multiple people out of the water or head upstream and figure out why they’re falling into the river in the first place.
The second option is strategic thinking. It’s getting above the problem to see why the problem keeps happening and what you need to do to fix it.
Strategic Thinking Isn’t . . .
Strategic thinking is not critical thinking. Critical thinking is zooming in on a problem to fix it while strategic thinking is zooming out to see the big picture. Both have their place and purpose, but they don’t accomplish the same thing.
Critical thinking focuses on solving the problem right in front of you—like pulling people out of the river once they’ve fallen in. But focusing too closely on the problem can cause you to miss its real cause. In other words, you can’t see the forest for the trees. Yes, critical thinking is 100% necessary, but it’s not your only option.
Sometimes people think of strategic thinking as planning, and that’s not quite right either. Planning is part of problem-solving, but it’s not what happens when you think strategically.
Strategic Thinking Is . . .
The word “strategy” is a military term derived from the Greek word “stratēgos,” meaning “the art of the general.” Generals view the battlefield from above to map out their tactics and talk through different strategies.
HR and business leaders aren’t fighting wars, but they still can use strategic thinking no matter their leadership style.
Strategic thinking is zooming out to get a look at the entire picture. Sticking with our river analogy, strategic thinking is about finding out why people are falling into the water. It asks:
- What’s causing this problem?
- What decisions did we make to get in this situation?
- What do I need to change to get a better outcome?
A key to successful strategic thinking is objectivity. You have to leave your emotions and personal feelings about the problem you’re dealing with at the door. It’s easy to panic or feel overwhelmed when people are calling out to you to save them from the river, after all. But when emotions are high, thinking is low. When you simply observe the problem for what it is (not what you want it to be), you can make the right decisions about the steps you need to take to solve it.
3 Ways to Improve Strategic Thinking
Now that you know what strategic thinking is, let’s break down how you can improve your strategic thinking skills.
1. Write the problem down.
This might sound really simple, but write the problem down on paper or a whiteboard. This is especially helpful with a lot of people working together.
After you write the problem down, look at it from all angles and challenge every option. Figure out who's involved, what's going on, potential causes—any of the details that are important to the situation.
Now that you have all the details and ideas written down, you can start formulating a solution:
- Which levers can I pull?
- What can I change?
- How can I respond to what’s going on differently than I have before?
- How can I reshape the business (or process, team, etc.) to have a new and better strategy?
- What do I need to do to get the outcome I want?
2. Surround yourself with people who are good at strategy.
If you want to improve your strategic thinking, surround yourself with strategic thinkers. Whether you’re looking around the office or lurking on LinkedIn, pay attention to what other leaders are doing and why they’re doing it. And then ask them about it! Ask why they made the decision they did. Dig into their process and learn how they balance expectations, business challenges, and doing what’s right for the business.
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Choose your time to ask questions wisely—don’t interrupt a meeting, for example. That just makes you look bad. And when you choose the right time to ask, most leaders will be more than happy to share their experience and wisdom with you.
3. Practice, practice, practice.
Nobody ever became an expert by doing something one time. In fact, we’re almost always terrible at anything we do the first time. That's just life.
Building your strategic thinking skills means lots of practice and getting in the trenches time and time again. The more reps you get, the easier it will be. But never forget, growing as a strategic thinker is a lifelong endeavor.
How Can HR Professionals Build Influence as Strategic Thinkers?
Here are three tips for HR professionals to build their influence as strategic thinkers within the workplace.
1. Crush it in your current job.
If you want to build influence as a strategic thinker, other leaders and decision-makers have to trust you. And trust begins when you do your job exceptionally well.
Take the time to fully understand the inner workings of your company and why people in the company feel the way they do on a specific topic, benefit or decision. If you’re known for having your finger on the pulse of your employees, you’ll become the go-to person for decision-makers who need that information to run their business well.
2. Be helpful.
Again, this sounds really simple, but being helpful is one of the best ways to build your influence as a strategic thinker. Once you’re known for excellent work and strategic thinking within your own area, you can step up and help leaders who need a strategic thinker with issues that touch HR. Over time, that can earn you a seat at the table when decisions are being made.
3. Be a resource.
Your skills, knowledge and understanding of HR and business leadership are a resource for your company—and you need to see them that way. The truth is, you have to believe you have what it takes to succeed before others believe in you. And when you view your position as a resource and make yourself available to others within the company, you’ll begin to build influence as a strategic thinker.
Strategic Thinking Is a Tool You Can Add to Your Toolbelt
So, if you found yourself down by a river trying to pull people out of the water, what should you do: Continue pulling people out or find out why they are falling in?
You should do both. Companies need people who can zoom out to think strategically about a problem and then zoom in to take action and correct the issue. There’s value in both, and the more you learn and grow, the more value you’ll bring to your company and the more you’ll contribute to the business’s strategy.
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