Six skills that will help you become a better strategic thinker by Joel Dobbs


“Traditional thinking is all about “what is.” Future thinking will also need to be about “what can be.
” – Edward de Bono

In my last post on CIO Leadership Tools for Success I briefly listed six skills that will improve your strategic thinking ability. Interestingly, I have also found that most successful people, regardless of their profession, also possess most if not all of these. Mastering these will help you to not only become a better strategist, they will also help you to be more successful in life and in business. Some of these may come naturally to you. Others may not; however, all can be learned with a little patience and practice. Here they are.

1. Seeing the big picture.

Strategy is really about plotting a course for a successful future. To plot the course, you must be able to visualize the destination. We frequently call this skill “visioning.” When I work with organizations to develop strategic plans one of the first things we do is cast a vision. A vision basically answers the question, “What does success look like?” One of the best ways to learn to see the proverbial “big picture” is to visualize what success, regardless of the endeavor, would look like. If the entity is your department or your company, pick a timeframe in the future and ask the question, “If we are wildly successful, how would we describe that success?” That description, which must be both clear and vivid, is the vision. This can apply to your personal or professional life. If your life turns out great how would you describe it in 5 or 10 years or at a particular age? Seeing the big picture involves first visualizing success and then understanding the opportunities and obstacles that may influence your journey towards your goal. In business this will require an understanding of markets and competitive forces as well as advances in key technologies or people skills. The final step is learning how to integrate all of these into a coherent picture of the world your organization lives in and how that world will evolve as the future unfolds.

2. Focusing on successful outcomes.

For many people trained in disciplines such as engineering, science or software development, their world is one governed by process. Clear, logical, repeatable methodologies are tools for success. Learning to focus on successful outcomes requires stepping back from the “how” and learning to embrace the “what.” When I work with start up companies one of the first things I have them do is talk to a lot of potential customers to make sure that they really understand their customer’s needs and the problems that they need solved before they start building a product. In the IT world focusing on successful outcomes means understanding the purpose and intended benefits of a technology before considering the technology itself and how it will be built or integrated. Know why you are doing what you are doing before you start doing it.

3. Thinking creatively.

In order to see the big picture and focus on successful outcomes, one must learn to think creatively. Several years ago I hired a company from New York that specialized in creative thinking to stimulate creativity in my organization. We had a lot of good engineers business analysts and project managers, but very few people who could come up with really novel ideas for solving problems. This company used playful techniques (in fact, as I recall, the company’s name was Play) as well as brainstorming exercises to help stimulate alternative ways of thinking, seeing problems and opportunities, and formulating novel solutions. Sometimes learning to think creatively will require radical approaches to break old habits but the effort can produce great rewards.

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