Strategy & Business Development

A creative hobby makes you a better strategic thinker

(Image: "A Ship in a bottle" by Roni G on flickr.com)

Strategic thinking is regarded, by many, as an almost unattainable discipline, primarily reserved for the few. A discipline that, some way or another, is regarded as gift. Or magical.

Julia Sloan attempts to destroy this assumption in her book “Learning How to Think Strategically”. According to Sloan, strategic thinking is something we are all able to learn.

Through a range of interviews with skilled strategic thinkers, Julia Sloan shows that it is not the traditional education (although all of the interviewed subjects had long educations) that's the reason for skilled strategic thinking. Instead, the interviewees indicate a variety of far less formal sources. For instance, they all mention artistic and creative expression, such as sculpturing, painting, playing music, taking pictures and racing, as something that has taught them to think strategically.

In this article, we take closer look at what strategic thinking is, what characteristics you must have in order to think strategically and on how to develop these.

What's strategic thinking?

Lots of people believe that the strategy they just decided on is created by strategic thinking. In reality there is a good chance that what you have been doing is, instead, strategic planning. And there is nothing wrong with that. Strategic thinking simply implies other things.

Strategic thinking is different from strategic planning by being a far more holistic, conceptual and complex exercise than the sequential and linear planning maneuver you have been through on your MBA. Rather than being linear, strategic thinking is a continual learning process that does not result in a complete “strategy product”. Furthermore, strategic thinking is far from an easy or simple process. The interviewees all express that it's an emotionally tiring process that is both intellectually challenging, difficult and risky.

But even though strategic thinking is an unstructured exhausting process, Sloan claims, that it's something we are all capable of learning. However, it demands that we understand, which attributes support the learning process that's part of the strategic thinking. Only then, are we able to imagine ways of developing our ability to think strategically.

Five critical attributes

Based on the interviews with the strategists Sloan identifies five attributes that are crucial to possess, if you wish to learn how to think strategically. The five critical attributes are:

  1. Imagination for combining seemingly unrelated experiences.
  2. A wide perspective that makes it possible to see many things at once and in a new way.
  3. An ability to “juggle” or take into consideration information that is both contradicting, unfinished and imprecise.
  4. The ability to handle things that you have no control over.
  5. An unquestionable desire to win. The motivation behind every winning strategy.

To strengthen these we must disregard the formal education and look at how we are able to use informal learning.

What is informal learning?

Informal learning is rarely found in a typical learning environment, on courses or in a class room. Informal learning can, for instance, be self-governed learning, social learning, mentoring, coaching, networking, learning by mistakes or learning by doing. Or when you immerse yourself in the mysteries behind a beautiful bottled ship.

Informal learning can be both planned, like coaching or self-governed learning, or occur randomly and unscheduled, like when you learn by doing or learn by your mistakes.

How to develop the five attributes

Sloan stresses the need for artistic or creative involvement as the essential approach when trying to think strategically. Whether you give in to visual arts, photography, dancing or bottle ships, your immersion in creativity means that you gather some of the abilities that strategic thinking requires.

Besides building bottle ships you could also:

  • Start asking questions instead of saying no.

  • Asking questions that moves from shallow to deeper thinking.

  • Write as many thoughts, feelings and new questions as possible, in a diary or log. This is of great use in relation to identifying patterns, revealing assumptions and focusing on traps in your thinking.

  • Spend time writing down the emotions that are connected to your thoughts. In time, these journal notes will provide you with data that you can use in supporting your intuitive feeling of a pattern or a trend.

  • Draw or design your strategy instead of writing it down. Use colors or shapes to indicate themes.

  • Use several different methods for conversation: Dialogue, debate, discussion and interview.

  • Write or tell parables or analogies that illustrates your assumptions and attitudes on strategic challenges.

  • Get a new perspective on the strategy from people with no knowledge of background, politics or content of a strategic challenge.

  • Examine content, process and premise of the strategy individually. Then find connections between them.

  • Avoid quick solutions to problems. Instead let the decision wait. Examine thing at random until you're surprised. Then ask about and think about the surprise.

  • Draw and tell the perspectives and patterns you see in the data. What do they mean, what could they mean, why and why not?

  • Slow down in order to speed up later.

  • Find role models that are good at thinking strategically. Ask them kindly to tell you about their feelings, thoughts and experiences about the learning process.

  • Find internal, external, colleagues or coaches to collaborate with on practicing dialogue and asking critical questions.