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The Six Key Elements of Strategic Thinking
Sep, 04,2013
Senior Managing Partner, Decision Strategies International

In a time of unprecedented uncertainty in the business landscape, strategic leadership is more critical than ever. The ability to think strategically and navigate change effectively is key to creating a sustainable organization — yet true strategic thinking and planning skills are a rarity among most executives. In fact, according to Chief Executive Magazine, seven out of 10 leaders are not strategic. 

This leadership gap is pervasive, as evidenced by an average corporate lifespan that has plummeted to just 40 years. More than ever before, today’s leaders must possess a more macro, systems-wide perspective of their business to stay nimble, much less stay in business, in the face of virtually constant disruption. So how can leaders reframe their perspectives and hone their strategic abilities?

It all boils down to mastering The Six Key Elements of Strategic Thinking. Designed to make strategic leadership less elusive among today’s executives, we developed this common framework for identifying and developing strategic thinkers based on in-depth research with more than 20,000 executives in more than 175 countries. The Six Key Elements of Strategic Thinking include the ability to: anticipate, challenge, interpret, decide, align and learn. While each of these elements has received isolated attention, they become significant in entirely new ways when examined in the context of one comprehensive framework.

1.      Anticipate:Most leaders focus on the present, but research shows that futures never follow a straight line. Strategic leaders proactively monitor the environment to foresee industry shifts — even at the periphery — so they can prepare for the resulting threats and opportunities.

2.      Challenge:Though conventional wisdom is tempting, strategic thinkers question everything instead of accepting information at face value. They reframe problems to understand root causes, challenge current beliefs and mindsets, and uncover hypocrisy, manipulation and bias.

3.      Interpret:Anticipating change and challenging conventions surfaces valuable facts and figures that must be thoughtfully analyzed to yield actionable results. Strategic leaders compare and contrast these data points in unconventional ways and test multiple hypotheses before arriving at conclusions.

4.      Decide:Indecision, also known as analysis paralysis, often keeps leaders from acting swiftly, resulting in missed windows of opportunity. Strategic leaders use process and discipline to arrive at a good enough decision. They balance speed, rigor, quality and agility to take courageous stands, even with incomplete information.

5.      Align:Strategic leaders welcome the diversity of differing viewpoints and opinions, but also must know how and when to align divergent agendas to work toward a common goal. Actively engaging stakeholders to encourage open dialogue and address misalignment helps build trust and reach consensus.

6.      Learn: Learning leaders encourage and embrace feedback, viewing success and failure as sources of critical insight. They insist on rigorous debriefs, remain agile, course-correct quickly if off track, and celebrate the right kind of failures in addition to success.

Using this framework, we created  The Strategic Aptitude Assessment (SAA), a self-assessment tool to help leaders evaluate their strengths and weaknesses in each area, compare their scores with other respondents and take action to improve their strategic leadership capabilities. The SAA is an effective tool to help leaders gauge strategic capabilities, and it has already been used by many Fortune 500 organizations. In uncertainty, you need to stop talking and start acting. Take the assessment today to see where you stack up.

Samantha Howland is a senior managing partner at Decision Strategies International, a future-focused strategy and leadership development consulting firm.