Strengthen Your Strategic Smarts

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strategic intelligence


The only thing more exasperating than being told “You’ve got to develop your executive presence” during your performance evaluation is “You’ve got to think and act more strategically.” While various reactions—many unfit for print—jump to mind, there’s often a kernel of truth in these vague statements. And while sorting out how to develop your presence or strategic thinking skills is challenging, it is surmountable.


A Strategic Pause

Most organizations use competency models to evaluate and support team members’ development. Rather than digging into the nitty-gritty of these models, I’ve found it helpful for individuals to think in terms of a simpler structural model called Foundations + 4 Pillars.

Each of us builds our lives and careers on core values tied to culture, faith, environment, and life experiences. Add technical or vocational skills, your broader sense of purpose, and your drive to succeed, and this describes your professional foundation. We then build four pillars on this foundation that are essential for career success:

  1. Operational agility: how well we translate issues into outcomes required for success in our organization
  2. Communication adaptability: how we adjust and adapt our approaches and styles in varying communications settings (this is home to the elusive concept of “executive presence”)
  3. Leadership flexibility: how we adjust our leadership style and behaviors to meet the needs of a given situation
  4. Strategic and critical thinking: how we explore, assess, frame, and decide—particularly in situations of ambiguity (this is where strategic intelligence lives)

Building these pillars is a career-long learning effort that demands deliberate focus, constant experimentation, and ongoing feedback and coaching.


The Difference Maker

Consider the consummate get-it-done professionals who draw upon their operational agility and communication adaptability strengths. And then there are the masters at working across organizations. These professionals draw upon their leadership flexibility. Many product managers show tremendous strength in these areas.

But it’s the fourth pillar—strategic and critical thinking—that is seen less frequently in most workplaces. Professionals who show abilities in this area are great at looking at complex problems and developing novel solutions that seize opportunities or mitigate emerging risks. These individuals see patterns in the noise of the marketplace and market forces, and they translate what they see into approaches and decisions that help their companies win.

While it might seem like strategic and critical thinkers have won the genetic lottery when it comes to these skills, it is possible for everyone to build their strength in these areas. It happens by learning to think differently about customers, roles, and industries.

But before diving into these exercises, it’s important to remember that developing your strategic intelligence is a journey, not a destination. Relax and recognize that great strategists became what they are through time, experimentation, and a fierce desire to learn and grow. You will develop on your path at your own pace.


War-Game or Red-Team Your Competitive Situation

Stress-testing your assumptions and simulating different approaches or strategies is a potent teacher that challenges us to look at the bigger picture and key decision issues. If your organization hasn’t institutionalized this process, be proactive and incorporate stress testing into your team’s activities. The group orientation and practice provide everyone the opportunity to think through and around both company and competitors’ strategies.


Strengthen Your Decision-Making Muscles

Much like your actual muscles, your decision-making abilities respond to exercise and deliberate strengthening. Unfortunately, the notion of strengthening as a decision-maker is virtually nonexistent in traditional development programs. That’s annoyingly ironic given the importance of decision-making in our individual, team, and organizational success.

An easy way to start this new workout routine is to maintain a journal and track your decisions and outcomes over time. Document your assumptions, note how issues are framed, and identify the expected outcomes. Compare results with expectations and conduct a post-mortem on your decision process. In the future, experiment with alternate framing and invite objective outsiders to challenge your thinking. By studying your tendencies and biases, you can work to mitigate them for subsequent decisions.

Not convinced? Remember, someone else usually has a voice in whether you succeed, and the choice is mostly a function of that person’s confidence in your decision-making ability. The more those in power trust you to make the right decisions, the greater your opportunities.


Find Trigger Events in the World and Connect Them

“Why will the emergence of autonomous vehicles lead to a huge demand for artificial hearts?” When I’ve posed this question to different groups, the first answers tend to ignore trigger events. While it’s amusing to think about the fear and stress of moving at a high speed in a car with no human driving, it’s also the wrong way to look at the question.

A practiced critical thinker views the emergence of autonomous vehicles as a trigger event. In this instance, one line of reasoning suggests that as autonomous vehicles become ubiquitous, the number of fatalities from accidents in intersections should shrink or disappear. Because a good number of hearts (and other organs) for transplantation come from accidents at intersections, it’s reasonable to predict a shortage. Combine this trigger event with the broader trend of an aging population, and the lack of transplant organs occurs at a time when demand is rising—likely catalyzing innovation and investment.

Whether the heart scenario will manifest as described is less the issue than prompting you to look for trigger events and connect them to your environment.


Break Down Your Industry Walls

One of the most successful product managers I’ve known recognized the tendency of the companies in her industry to think in the narrow confines of their own walls. She pushed her product team to look at unrelated industries for trends, approaches, and ideas and then apply selected concepts to her company. These efforts opened multiple markets, facilitated new partner relationships, and provided ideas for rethinking several aspects of their operations.

This application of analogic thinking proved brilliant, and it’s one we all can replicate. Push yourself and your team to look beyond your industry to ask—and answer—questions like “What does this mean for us?” and “What, if anything, should we do with these insights?”


Get a Hobby and Go Deep

Who knew that a calligraphy class would one day connect to innovations that changed our world? But it was Steve Jobs’ fascination with calligraphy that led to the unique typefaces and fonts in the original Macintosh computer. This differentiation helped carve a unique brand persona for Apple.

There’s no guarantee that your hobby will lead to nearly a trillion dollars in market capitalization; however, it will expose you to different ideas, different ways of thinking, and a separate network of individuals with unique interests and skillsets. These are the raw ingredients for new ways of looking at situations. As a bonus, immersing yourself in something outside of your day job is incredibly cathartic and can be transformational.


Learn to Love and Thrive in Ambiguity

“I don’t know where to start on solving this problem!” a client recently said to me. I shocked her by replying, “That’s great!” But I meant it.

When there’s no clear starting point and no pre-established way forward, you are challenged to think creatively and innovatively. Developing unique solutions for novel situations stretches and strengthens your strategic-thinking muscles. I regularly counsel clients to seek challenges with high degrees of ambiguity as a core part of their development programs.

One caveat: Fear of being wrong keeps many individuals from embracing these moments of ambiguity. Pressures from the organizational culture or the boss are primary contributors to fear in the workplace. Remember that the four pillars play best together. Your communication adaptability is essential for navigating challenging conversations with your boss and key stakeholders. Operational agility and leadership flexibility are required to bring ideas to life. Use your skills, embrace the ambiguity and learn from your experience.


The Bottom Line

Yes, hearing “You need to be more strategic” is an annoying piece of vague feedback. However, instead of dismissing the input, reframe it and seek opportunities to think and look differently at situations. The tools here offer healthy exercises to level-up your strategic thinking and grow that professional pillar. How you apply your strengthened abilities is, of course, another critical-thinking puzzle to solve.

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Art Petty

Art Petty

Art Petty is a former software industry executive and now an executive and emerging leader coach, author and graduate management educator. He is creator of Pragmatic Institute’s Partner Learning Network online course, “Level-Up Power Skills: Influence, Lead and Develop Yourself.” He also writes the Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles and books. Connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter.

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