Serendipity is all very well, however, to maximise the chance of achieving the most out of life you need a plan, and the first step is to hone your ability to think strategically. Any planning process begins with reflective thinking which includes an evaluation of where you are today, an assessment of where you want to be in the future, and the consideration of what it will take to move from now to then. Make a start by achieving clarity through an evidence-based critical thought process. It also means having the courage to act and the grit to see through whatever you decide to do. This approach is strategic thinking in action.
Many people are put off attempting strategic thinking because they don’t know where to start, or they believe it is a skill only the chosen few possess. Anyone can hone their ability to think critically and apply the principles of strategic planning to their circumstances. What it takes is effort combined with a willingness to be open-minded and try different techniques. Consider the following ideas:
1. Practice reflective thinking. For many people, the art of slowing down and taking time out to think gets lost in the daily avalanche of email, reactive decision making and endless meetings. The Harvard Business Review explains that “a focus on information processing, reaction, and execution — while it may feel productive — causes the quality of our thoughts to suffer. In reflective thought, a person examines underlying assumptions, core beliefs, and knowledge, while drawing connections between apparently disparate pieces of information.”
In other words, if you want to become a strategic thinker, you must build in time for structured contemplation and discovery. Start by being on your own side. Mark out space for a ‘strategic review’ in your diary as this will not happen by chance. Make this a repeat session, say, once a month so that you can monitor progress and refresh your plans. After all, this is an investment in you and your future. Find a quiet space where you can think over the following questions:
- Are you where you want to be?
- Are the skills, beliefs and behaviours that got you here continuing to serve you well?
- What has worked?
- What has not worked?
- What have you discovered from your triumphs?
- What have you learned from your setbacks?
- Where would you like to be in the future?
- What would enhance your personal growth, happiness and job satisfaction?
- What is within the scope of your control?
- How might you influence or mitigate the things that are beyond your control?
- What is the first step that you can take?
- What difference will this make to your daily activities?
Dig deep and avoid self-editing. It may not be comfortable but if you don’t ask the awkward questions, who will? Practice self-compassion as you do this.
2. Conduct a personal SWOT. Take your reflections forward by conducting a personal SWOT Analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats). Best known for business planning, SWOT is also an excellent framework to help you manage your career and plans for life. SWOT was invented at Stanford University by Albert Humphrey who was a highly successful business and management consultant. It is still taught today at MBA level. As it is so simple, it is frequently overlooked yet it is one of the best tools you can apply.
Here’s how to create a personal SWOT. Apply your answers to the questions from your reflective practice to help you complete the SWOT two-by-two matrix. Use the results to distinguish yourself, recognising your unique skills, strengths and talents, plan strategies to manage your weaknesses/threats and take advantage of any opportunities. Approach this task in a positive frame of mind with a dose of humility and dash of clear-eyed realism. Don't be overly self-critical. Just answer the questions honestly and remember to think about it from both your perspective and those around you.
It also helps to seek out opportunities to gain honest critical feedback. If you are open to other people’s views and ideas, they are more likely to share these with you. Welcoming feedback also encourages people to want to help and support your desire to learn and improve. If you get critical feedback, look at it as an opportunity to further your development. The next step is to move forward into planning specific action using the trilogy questions: What do I want? How can I get it? When will I do what?
3. Get your priorities straight. Now you have a clear course of action with specific goals in mind; the critical issue is making it happen. Having a goal is just dreaming until action is taken to move closer to achieving what you desire, so set yourself up for success by effective time management.
There are many time management tools to consider. One of the best that I have found is the Urgent/Important Matrix which was invented by President Dwight Eisenhower. Not without good reason is it highlighted by business guru and author, Stephen Covey in his best seller ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People’. It works because it helps you decide on and prioritise tasks by urgency and importance, sorting out less urgent and important duties which you should either delegate or not do at all. Prioritising tasks by urgency and importance results in four quadrants with different work strategies. For every existing to-do on your list and every new one coming in, sit down and ask these critical questions:
- Is this task urgent? Does it need to be done today or can it wait?
- Is this task vital for me personally? For my business, my family or my long-term career?
- Am I the best and the only one able to do this? Who might be better placed?
- Is there something of little urgency and importance I could stop doing right now?
Your goal should be to trim down your existing to-do list and carefully review any new task coming in, starting today. Be honest, realistic and try to reflect on your responses. You will become more confident in automatically categorising tasks over time. Using this simple method of time-management will help you get the right things done. For more details, check out the resources on https://www.eisenhower.me/
4. Broaden your mind. Continue to practice strategic thinking by being open to fresh concepts and exploring new perspectives. Being curious is also a key aspect of developing a growth mindset. In a growth mindset, you are continually learning and expanding your options by connecting with new ideas, people and places. We have evolved to explore. Step outside of your comfort zone and experiment with different experiences.
Why not consider learning a new sport, a language, an instrument or a game that promotes a sense of achievement, self-confidence and resilience. If time is short, why not try TED talks to gain insights from global thought leaders or use audio books to explore new ideas and skills. Maybe visit an art gallery or museum for inspiration. Try reading a book that you would typically shun. Even varying your route to work and taking a 20-minute break at lunchtime to walk somewhere green can stimulate the mind.
Try attending talks within your company to gain a better understanding of the business. If there are none, then suggest a topic and speaker. Make it happen. Check out the range of free and inexpensive talks held at places such as the British Library and the RSA. The mission of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) is to enrich society through ideas and action. Both organisations have extensive online resources if you can’t visit in person.
Cultivating the skill of strategic thinking means we are open to learning every day, in every way. Most of all it says that you are not on automatic pilot but mindfully living a life of rich discovery and purpose.