A friend of mine just had her mid-year review. Everything went great. Her boss told her that while she is great at the technical work, she does not think strategically.
Translation: You know what to do but not why you are doing it.
This is a common problem among engineers and scientists. Most are assignment focused, which tends to be more tactical then strategic.
Before we dig into the why, let’s take a step back and define what strategically means. Specifcally, what it means in a business context.
Strategically: Highly important to an intended objective
So when your boss asks you to think strtegically, remember this definition as you read below why it’s so important to train yourself to think strategically.
Why Do I Need To Be Strategic?
Don’t get frustrated when you boss tells you this. It’s really a good thing. When a boss tells you to be more strategic, he is telling you that you have leadership potential. He is also testing you to see if you can figure out what being strategic means. Being strategic allows you to anticipate challenges and figure out solutions before trouble strikes. Thinking strategic also defines the journey you are on and focuses the team on a common goal. So, why do you need to be strategic? The short answer: To get promoted.
The How vs The Why
The best way to think about tactics is how things get done. Strategy deals with the why. Now, it’s not as easy as saying “We are making product X because it makes money.” Not a strategy. Too shallow and too obvious. Strategy has to deal with the concrete reasons why your approach will make money. It’s the deeper why. Your boss wants to you to understand the deeper why so that you can start to think like him.
Ways To Think About The Deeper Why
So, strategy is the deeper why, not the superficial obvious reason. Training yourself to think about the deeper why requires you spend time away from the how (or tactics) and think. This can drive most engineers and scientists crazy because thinking gets no work done. This will be your biggest challenge — training yourself that thinking is work. To help you do this, try these methods:
- Think 3 steps ahead: Start out by thinking about the next day, the next week and then the next month. These are not really strategic time frames but the practice is good. Once you have that nailed, think next quarter, next year and then next two years. Build it up until you can go between them easily. Initially, it will take a lot of effort to sit and think about these things, but after a while, you will do it automatically.
- Study Competitors: Where your competitors are heading is a good indication as to where the overall market or technology is heading. Knowing their road maps and where the gaps are can be informational. Looking at the gaps makes you think about how you might be able to fill those gaps.
- Ask Why: The deeper why includes questioning why things are happening and how they effect what you do. Challenging assumptions will bring out the underling strategy so that you can determine if it’s still viable. Doing this is a great way to learn what strategies lead to what tactics, etc.
- Study Your Industry: Along with competitors, take a look at your overall industry, including adjacent markets that could influence what you are doing. Most strategy formulation deals with the macro-technological or macro-market trends. These trends are where your strategic thinking should be focused on.
- Think Like A Competitor: One way to validate your strategy is to put yourself in your competitors shoes and see how you would beat yourself. This will force you to critically assess your direction and how that will effect your competitors. If you see a gap or a potential gap, then you can address it and then rethink the thought experiment.
- Understand Your Customers: Thinking like a customer means that you look for problems that they need to solve, not what they tell you they need solved. What they need now is important but not sufficient. Most customers only work on problems they have today not what problems they will have tomorrow. Understanding those future problems, will allow you to form better strategy.
You Still Need to Do Something
Too much strategic thinking will cripple your ability to actually do something. Remember, doing brings your strategy to life. So, don’t go overboard on thinking strategically. Balance thinking with doing, with more emphasis on doing.