The First Step To Being A Strategic Thinker


To think strategically about any organisation, you must first understand the vision, strategies and values its owners have for it. Without a thorough understanding of these, it's impossible to make linkages to your role, make better day-to-day decisions and give effective advice. You are also unlikely to be seen as a strategic thinker by others if you have not grasped the organisation's key strategies. However, fully understanding these and how they relate to you may not be as simple as it seems.

It’s common for medium to large organizations to have a written vision and strategies. Some also publish values. A few years ago these would be found in glossy booklets and framed on walls. These days they are more likely to be published on the organisation’s intranet, and some publish their vision on their website.
So it would appear a simple thing to read these documents to get a good understanding of the strategic direction of the organisation. Unfortunately this may not be the case. The published documents may fall behind the thinking of the owners and/or strategic team.
This happens for two key reasons. Firstly, the documents usually look about three years ahead. Despite the strategic analysis tools available, it is unlikely that all future predictions will be entirely accurate. Secondly, because often organisations have a lengthy process of consultation with a range of stakeholders, including staff, in updating strategic documents.
That’s good practice, because various stakeholders have different views of the organisation and it’s future, and considering these viewpoints helps make strategy more robust. However I may be a slow process and when strategies must be changed quickly to respond to external pressures, this process may lag behind.
In reality, the organisation’s operating environment is prone to change in ways that may not have been accurately predicted when the strategies and priorities were published. Some examples of this include:
• Government funded organizations where a change of Government dictates a change of priorities and funding models

• The organization finds economic conditions change more quickly than expected and must respond by changing some of its strategies and focus
• New owners or executives who influence the strategic priorities

There are of course, arguments to be made that good strategic analysis and planning should predict these. However, in order to produce strategy, some decisions must be made as to the most likely future scenarios. Inevitably some of those predictions turn out to be inaccurate. The result is that, commonly, organisations find the written strategies lagging behind in some respects.
In our quest to be strategic thinkers, what does that mean?
Certainly read and be familiar with the written strategies. They won’t all change; in fact most are likely to remain strategies for the long term. And additionally, to keep really up to date with the organisation’s strategic priorities, listen to messages coming from a range of senior sources. Some of these might include:
• Shareholder meetings
• Senior management forums
• Memos from senior management to staff
• Press statements
By listening to the messages coming from the highest levels in the organisation, you may begin to detect trends. Perhaps a particular priority is mentioned more than once. You may then notice that priority being acted
on. If you are attuned to this, you will keep up with changes.
As you go about your role in the organisation, use your knowledge of strategic priorities, vision and values to shape the suggestions you make and feedback you give. Think about how ideas and suggestions fit with the
strategies and priorities first, before you consider the operational impacts. This way you are beginning to think strategically first and others can observe that you are.
As you make day-to-day decisions in your role, make sure they align with the strategic priorities and values. I was working with a local government client recently and asked one of the team leaders what his team did. “We clean the public toilets” he said. They were rightly proud of having won awards for the standard of their toilets. But from a strategic perspective, I wanted him to understand the impact of his team doing a great job or a poor job.
So I asked him a critical question, “So what happens when you do that well?” His reply? “People choose to stop here for toilet breaks.” I then asked him “What else happens when people stop for toilet breaks?” He thought for a moment and then said “Well, some of them get food and drinks from the local businesses, as well.” Ah, so now we were getting closer. As I kept asking the result or consequence of each step, he realised that by his team doing a great job of cleaning the toilets, they were in fact contributing to the wealth and success of the local community.
And what do you think one of the strategies of my client organization (his employer) is?
Yes, to support the growth and standard of living of the community. Of course, the reverse also applies. If his team make poor decisions about how they do their jobs, the implications are less people stopping at his town, and therefore less sales for other businesses, less income, less employment and so forth.
While strategists usually work from the big picture down, for others in the organisation, it may be more helpful to start from a role and work back up.
Understanding your impact on strategy is important if you and others are to make better day-to-day decisions. It will also help develop your Strategical Savvy – your ability to think strategically, implement strategy and have others perceive you as a strategic thinker.


Jenni is the originator of the concept of Strategical Savvy - competence in thinking strategically and being recognised by others as a strategic thinker.

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