Have you ever heard these being uttered either to you or to someone you know? – “You’ve got to think bigger!” “Be more strategic!” “Apply yourself better and see the big picture!” If these words are familiar, you (or the someone you know) might need to brush up on your strategic thinking, right? Well yes…… and no.
Yes, you’ll ultimately need to develop your strategic thinking but what is the first thing you need to do? Read more books? No way. Talk to higher ups? Nope. Go for a strategic thinking course? Sadly, no. That’s perhaps number two (or three…or even 10!).
The first thing you need to do is to develop your creative thinking. If you don’t have a creative bone in your body, chances are, you cannot be a strategic thinker. Strategic thinking requires that we play with possibilities. And if we cannot accept newness in thinking, if we cannot see different perspectives, if we cannot imagine our future state, frankly, we can never be strategic. And all these skills relate to being creative.
So if you want to improve your strategic thinking abilities, improve your creative abilities; and here are three things you can do right now:
1. Make uses out of non-uses
We have all sat through this game in a creativity workshop – “Think of all the uses of a paperclip.” Ultimately, we come to a stuttering halt as we wind down to seven ideas. Not very creative, is that? Here’s another way to play the paperclip game. Think of all the NON-uses of the paperclip. Some people might say, “We can’t eat the paperclip”; others will say “We can’t write with the paperclip” and yet others might say, “We can’t buy things with a paperclip.” (These are the most common responses I get in my class).
When you have gotten a nice long list (and it should be a long list, shouldn’t it?), circle back and identify the BEST non-use for the paperclip – the humdinger of a non-use idea. Once you’re done, take a short break.
When you return, take that best non-use and come up with ways that you CAN use a paperclip for that. For example, when you say, “We can’t eat the paperclip,” then come up with ways that you can indeed eat the paperclip. For example, we could ground the paperclip, and sprinkle it over ice-cream and eat it, right? Or we could bake bread to resemble a paperclip; we could eat that too. Ultimately, we could do quite a bit to eat the paperclip, can’t we?
If you try this exercise, you will notice that everything you thought couldn’t be done could well be achieved. You just have to change certain things – and the biggest of which is the way you perceive the “problem”.
Learn to make uses out of non-uses and you will see your resistance to possible ideas melt away; and this is one key behavior of being strategic because without the ability to shift your perspectives, you will not be strategic.
2. Play the “Yes, and…” game
This is another favourite of creative thinking trainers – have a group of people come up front and play the “Yes, and…” game. I am sure you have played this. In essence, we start a story, for example, “I am going to build Bill Gates’ house…” and each person will continue the story by adding one line to it, starting with the words, “Yes, and…”
Cognitively, people understand how to play the game, but you will notice that when most people say “Yes, and…” they really mean “Yes, but…” Let’s take a look…
“I am going to build Bill Gates’ house.” “Yes, and we need a lot of money.”
Do you think this is a “Yes, but…” statement disguised as a “Yes, and…?” Yeah, I think so too. Instead of building on the idea given to them, these people come up with ideas that will somehow kill it.
It is crucial to develop your ability to connect ideas and grow new thoughts. After all, if you can’t even build Bill Gates’ house, which is not too difficult to imagine, how can you build the future, which we have not seen?
So build on your imagination to build on your strategic thinking. Play the “Yes, and…” game right, and play it often.
Stretch with “What if?”
What if all the fathers made the household purchasing decisions?
What if we had no more fossil fuels?
What if all pharmaceutical patents were null and void?
What if investment banks became social enterprises?
As I asked those questions, did you come up with alternative ideas for the current reality? I’m sure you did. And that is what the “What if?” game does for us. It stretches the current frame and gives us a way of looking at things differently. The more “What ifs” you play, the better you will get at thinking about alternatives. And these alternatives can evolve into scenarios. And that is another key strategic thinking behavior.
The commingling of perspectives
If only I could say that our strategic decision-making protocol is the only tool that you will ever need to be strategic. But I can’t. I could also say that the only skill you’d ever need to be strategic is to be creative. I also can’t. Ultimately, strategic thinking is the coming together of looking ahead and looking behind, of looking from above and looking from below, of looking beyond and looking aside. All these perspectives come together to make you a strategic person. So it is more than simply being creative. But you can never get there without it. So if you need to develop your strategic thinking, get on with these exercises and when you’re done, let’s look at the next thing to do.