Let’s say you find yourself miles above the earth, traveling to an exotic island where you’ll spend a blissful two weeks under the sun. You’ve packed all of the necessary items: swimsuit, sunscreen, your favorite thriller to read while you’re lounging out on the sand. Everything points to a relaxing, idyllic vacation.
But once you arrive, you realize you’ve overlooked one minor, yet significant detail: it’s rainy season in paradise.
While you were busy booking your flight and ironing out tactical logistics, you failed to consider one of the most important variables (i.e. a sunny forecast).
Why we need to think strategically
“Strategy is style of thinking, a conscious and deliberate process, an intensive implementation system, the science of insuring future success.” — Pete Johnson
The above scenario happens to the best of us; getting bogged down in the details of a project without envisioning what might happen in the future.
How many times have we taken a “heads down” approach to our work and failed to see the bigger picture?
While it’s normal to get caught up in individual tasks, in order to make good decisions and set ourselves up for success, we have to cultivate our ability to generate new ideas and make connections between them.
In other words, we need to develop our strategic thinking.
And it’s a skill that won’t only benefit us when planning our next trip, it’s also critical for our career advancement.
As Nina A. Bowman noted in her recent Harvard Business Review article,
“Showing strategic thinking skills tells your bosses that you’re able to think for yourself and make decisions that position the organization for the future. It assures them that you aren’t making decisions in a vacuum but are considering how other departments might be affected or how the outside world will respond.”
All of this comes down to mindset — in pushing ourselves to build up our perspective-taking and inquiry skills.
But how does one do this, you might ask?
Learning how to focus on the bigger picture
Since starting Jotform in 2006, I’ve mentored younger entrepreneurs over the years and always emphasize the importance of actively growing one’s curiosity. “Stretch yourself in new ways,” I tell them.
Look for experiences that allow you to identify patterns and connect the dots in your business.
All of this is to say that you should see beyond what’s in front of you. When working on a major project, try to step back and ask: “how does each variable align with my overall vision?”
Of course, there will always be challenges, but by thinking ahead and paying attention to issues that are repeatedly raised in your organization, you can consider different approaches and outcomes.
American author, John C. Maxwell, put it well:
“Big-picture thinkers broaden their outlook by striving to learn from every experience. They don’t rest on their successes, they learn from them.”
Make time for reflection
When we’re rushing from one task to another, our ability to think and process new information becomes limited.
“Self-reflection entails asking yourself questions about your values,” says film producer Robert L. Rosen, “assessing your strengths and failures, thinking about your perceptions and interactions with others, and imagining where you want to take your life in the future.”
In the early years of building my company, I made it a point to have programmed periods of rest and recovery. I began taking a week off every year to help my parents with the olive harvest in my hometown.
All of this time spent away allowed me to keep my mind from wandering aimlessly, become capable of assessing and anticipating specific problems, and devise appropriate solutions.
Writing for Harvard Business Review, Jennifer Porter emphasizes the importance of leaders prioritizing self-reflection:
“Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, untangle and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning. This meaning becomes learning, which can then inform future mindsets and actions.”
I’ve written before about the importance of protecting one’s downtime and want to reiterate why I believe it’s essential for strategic thinking.
It’s as simple as this: resting gives room for reflection.
And to quote Maxwell,
“Reflective thinking turns experience into insight.”
Ways to develop your strategic thinking
Challenge the status quo
Step out from behind your desk and start discussing your ideas with different people. Initiate brainstorming sessions with a colleague and try to focus on the bigger picture.
Part of this involves being curious and asking yourself difficult questions to help you better engage with others. Ask yourself what success will look like to you in 2, 5, and even 10 years? How do the projects and outcomes you’re working on now contribute to your organization’s mission?
Broaden your perspective
Since strategic thinking is about creating connections, you want to bring your own unique point of view to the table and demonstrate your ability to initiate innovation.
That only comes from exposing yourself to experiences that help open your mind to new possibilities. In other words, go to those networking events you’ve been avoiding and meet up with people who challenge your own biased ways of thinking. Read up on topics outside of your normal range of interests that introduce you to fresh opinions and expand your horizons.
Be a proactive communicator
Building your strategic skills also comes down to execution. Sure, you can come up with all the brightest, most innovative ideas in the world, but they’ll mean very little if you don’t translate them into better decisions.
Part of this means becoming a more proactive communicator. Instead of long-winded emails, try being more succinct and frame issues by level of priority.
For example, leave all your smaller tactical issues to email and focus on higher-level discussions for your in-person meetings. This allows you to mention your strategic ideas in a way that shows the value you contribute.
By applying these principles, you can ensure a framework that will set you up for long-term success — and even more importantly, for finding meaning amid the chaos.