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Is strategic thinking important for leaders? When asked this question, most business leaders said “yes.” The remaining said generic use of the term has muddied its meaning. Therefore, let me clarify what I mean by strategic thinking as it applies to work. In my experience, individuals who effectively demonstrate this capability:

  • Use a broad “field of vision” to see patterns, trends and interrelationships in a corporate setting
  • Look beyond the present to anticipate how decisions and actions could play out with individuals, groups, divisions, etc.
  • Consider how the external business environment and internal company environment impact operations

Strategic thinking is especially important for driven, action-oriented leaders. It serves as a counterbalance to their nature. Many driven, action-oriented leaders focus too much on simply doing something. This action-orientation can get in their way, because they end up doing something that has little, no or the wrong impact. This wastes a lot of resources. When they apply strategic thinking, it helps them take a step back, consider the desired impact and formulate the best plan to execute to have this impact. Strategic thinking is a factor in many things ranging from how they choose to manage their teams to how they decide to compete in a specific market.

Strategic Thinking Obstacles

As you apply strategic thinking, keep an eye out for two obstacles that prevent leaders from successfully using it on a consistent basis. The two obstacles are:

  • Getting caught in the weeds
    • When leaders dive too deep into the details (many leaders enjoy the details), they find it difficult to get out of them. Even if they take action, they miss the larger picture.
  • Analysis paralysis
    • Leaders frequently gather information to obtain a broader, objective view. When this is overdone, evaluating and doing something with this information becomes a problem. Leaders struggle to move from analysis to interpretation of this information. Consequently, they do not take any action.

If these obstacles are hindering your strategic thinking, try these tactics:

  • Use a tether. This is anything that will restrict how far you get into the weeds. This could be a trusted colleague who pulls you back when you’re going too deep. It could also be a simple reality check you use on yourself such as asking, “What could I be giving up by digging further into the details?”
  • Establish processing guard rails. This involves limiting how much information you will gather and how long you will analyze it. For example, you could only collect content on certain topics and evaluate it for a fixed period. Once this is done, turn your attention to acting on what you have discovered.

Strategic thinking is a capability that increases in value for leaders as their responsibilities expand over time. As you become more comfortable with what it really is and what gets in its way, consider how you can make strategic thinking a larger part of how you work.


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: Thinking Woman, Pixabay)