Strategic Thinking 101

So who should be reading this little nugget? Well the answer is...

everyone in business who wants to make a difference from the shop floor upwards. You don’t need to be a leader to think in a strategic way, in fact, if you are waiting to be promoted before you start then you are more than likely in for a long wait.

But what does thinking strategically actually mean?

Thinking About Context


Organisations don’t exist in a vacuum. To be successful those working in the organisation need to understand the position it occupies in the market place, who the competitors are, what external changes may have an impact on its profitability, or its reputation, and what challenges and opportunities lie ahead. Horizon scanning enables those in the organisation to respond in an agile and appropriate way to change, rather than just react to its impact. 

How do you do this? Well keep up with business news, read competitors press releases, participate in online forums, engage in discussions with those in the know around you and set up alerts from useful RSS feeds to your phones.  

Thinking Outcome not Output

Those of a project mindset will recognise this one. 

An output is the thing you deliver, which in itself has no value to the organisation unless it is put to use in a way that delivers a benefit (or outcome). Many people focus on producing the 'thing' and lose sight of why we are producing the 'thing'. Also those who tend to focus on the ‘things’ can get lost in the detail and create complexity. Part of being outcome focused is the ability to translate complexity into clear and compelling outcomes. Whatever you are being asked to do, your first questions should be around what are you wanting to achieve and how will you recognise when you have achieved it (i.e. what will be different and how will that be better than where we currently are?).

Thinking with Curiosity and Innovation

This has two elements. 


Firstly this is about not blindly accepting what you are being told as fact. Often people profess things as fact when it is, in effect, their opinion. A curious approach would mean asking insightful questions to enable you to determine opinion from fact, testing assumptions, testing assumed constraints and challenging thinking and approach. It is not about putting a spot light on someone and interrogating them. It is about exploring what is being proposed from a number of different perspectives to ensure that any areas of weakness or opportunity are identified and addressed. 

Secondly it is about evaluating what is being proposed in the light of the business context and outcome required and then thinking in a creative and innovative way about the range of options available, before deciding on which one to follow. To assist with this, look at what other organisations are doing, not just in your sector or industry, and not just to solve similar problems. Instead look at exciting new approaches and consider how you can adapt these to your own environment.

Thinking Collaboratively

In our interconnected world and global business environment, the days of going into a dark room, producing something and then presenting it as the ‘the answer to all ills’ no longer works. We have the needs, desires and opinions of shareholders, co-workers, customers, community and many more stakeholders to consider. 


Thinking strategically is about identifying who needs to be involved and who will be impacted inside and outside the organisation. Also, it is about understanding the impact of different initiatives in the organisation on other parts of the organisation and ensuring that one part of the operation is not unintentionally sabotaging another part. For example, Strategy declare the organisation is reducing its paper usage and moving to digital products, meanwhile sales order 3000 copies of a 100 page catalogue to be printed off for customer distribution. 

Being effective in this area is about knowing what different parts of the business are trying to achieve and making connections that enable different areas of the business to work collaboratively rather than compete.

Applying strategic thinking at the operational level

Strategic thinking is not just about writing big strategies it is about thinking big picture and translating that into practical operational approaches across your organisation. This is why encouraging and enabling people at the operational level to think strategically leads to better outcomes for the organisation regardless of the job someone is doing.

Finally a short and very funny example from Geoff Birch of how strategic thinking can work at the operational level..