Strategic thinking – You need to drop your established thought models!

thik big

How do you change your mindset from thinking tactical to approaching challenges from a strategic perspective? Heck, what is the difference between the two to begin with?

If you think tactically, you are focused on the next small step from where you are now. You think about the next natural thing to do. Indeed, very often, that’s exactly what you need to do: “do the next right thing” (from Frozen 2 for all of you who have little kids). The challenge is that while you progress with that approach, it will not always be in the direction you should go. You move forward, but not with a clear target in mind.

Thinking strategically turns that model around as it starts from where you want to be in the future. It doesn’t concern itself with the immediate next step but looks at the bigger picture and the more distant future. Strategic thinking asks what that ideal future would look like. Then, and only then, it goes into figuring out how you could get there.

Tactical thinking is our natural tendency – after all, our ancestors had to be much more occupied with finding their next meal than with planning five years ahead. Strategic thinking started as they settled down and needed to think ahead to the fall harvest. It expanded the opportunities they were presented with.

If you want to have true impact, you need to think strategically. Fluency between tactical and strategic thinking makes you a leader.

To think strategically, you need to change your thought models in these three ways:

Always start with the ‘why’ – Before you can even get into what the ideal end state should be, you need to get clarity on what you want to achieve. WHY are you doing this? What is the change you want to drive and why? How is the new situation different, and why does that matter? Understand your WHY, and you will know where you need to go!

Think big and forget what you currently know – Very often, we hold ourselves back by what we know or what we think we know. We subconsciously hold to constraints that are often not real but just assumed. We have solutions in mind that limit how creatively we entertain out-of-the-box approaches. We are afraid of the challenges of taking on big scary goals, and with that, we unconsciously aim a lot lower than we should. Forget about all of those – think about what the end state looks like in an ideal world. If you had no constraints at all, what would you work towards?

Incremental thinking – The last and hardest mindset shift is to let go of incremental thinking. This is super hard. At Amazon, it took me about a year to train new – highly educated – employees to make that mental leap. We all tend to “think forward” from what we have. What is the next set of improvements to the toolset we currently use? What are the next adaptations to the process? While this is nice and good for continuous improvement efforts, it precludes disruptive changes – and disruptive changes are what really moves you ahead. You must avoid incremental thinking as the actual new ideal end-state might require you to give up what you currently have.

Don’t start from what you have. Start from where you want to be and then figure out how you could get there.

Thinking strategically, or “thinking big” is one of my three favorite leadership principles at the core of Amazon’s approach to challenges and opportunities. Here is how the official definition goes:

Think Big
Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. They think differently and look around corners for ways to serve customers.

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Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

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