How to think more strategically — 12 tips to 'rewire' your brain
Updated: Nov 29, 2018
I live in Washington DC, a town full of political machination and strategy. Being called a strategic thinker here is high praise. But it is not just DC — the ability to think strategically is perceived to be an essential key to success in business, government, and non-profit work. Strategic and creative thinkers get to top because they can influence people and make stuff happen.
In my coaching practice, working with leaders and organizations in DC and around the world, I see a few recurrent strategic thinking dilemmas:
Struggling to see the big picture or not feeling there is time or ‘mental space’ to think strategically
Difficulty coaching or motivating employees to think more strategically
Struggling with the mystery of how to fulfill a mandate to become more strategic in a current role or lacking the confidence to take the next career step due to lack of confidence or inexperience doing more strategic work
Despite how common these challenges are, when I speak to clients about what they want in terms of strategic thinking from themselves and others, most struggle to define it. They take an ‘I know it when I see it’ approach or can only easily describe its absence. This is a big problem because the world needs more genuinely creative, strategic, and visionary leaders to solve the problems we have now, as well as the challenges we have not even thought of yet.
So what does it mean to think strategically? It means literally changing your default settings — rewiring your brain — so you can approach and reflect on your work and your place in it differently. It requires being able to think longer-term, anticipate what has never happened, be creative and confident in suggesting new ways of working, and the ability to avoid getting mentally blocked by the stresses and pressures we all face. Some people more naturally gravitate to working in this way, but thinking strategically is a skill like anything else that you can work to develop. What follows are 12 initial ways to practice 'resetting' your default ways of thinking to expand your options and potential.
1. Stretch your ability to look farther ahead. First, ask yourself how far you are currently looking ahead. A week? 3 months? A year? If you could see farther ahead how far would you like that to be? What could you do to stretch your time horizon just a little? Is it a physical calendar on the wall looking out farther than you can currently see? It is a really long-term goal that you have to work back from? What would help you change the time horizon you are currently working within?
2. Have learning as a goal. Strategic thinking isn’t only about winning and achieving, it is about constantly revising your understanding of what it would mean to be winning, what it would require to win, what the consequences of winning would be, and what you need to know and do differently to win next time. What would you really like to learn right now? Don’t worry if it seems unrelated to your strategic question. Go learn it.
3. Listen so hard it hurts your head. That meeting you had where you asked everyone what they thought, then you gave then 3.5 seconds to respond, after which you complained that no one ever gives you any input? Do that over. Deep listening is spacious, empathetic, ravenously curious, and never involves you thinking about what you are going to say next. Learning to really listen better is really hard work. What could you do to be a better listener?
4. Look for the hidden Jedi masters. If you are fixated on hierarchy, resumes, or so called ‘experts’ you might be missing the chance to get wisdom from unexpected sources. Answers (or better questions) can be found absolutely anywhere, so don’t assume you must have them since you are in charge, or they only exist only above you, or that they even have to be found in your field. Don’t expect to necessarily find what you need from people who are ‘like you’ in any way. Yoda was an odd looking creature who was nearly 1000 years old, but wise he was. What wisdom have you gotten from an unexpected source?
5. Be genuinely curious. This is #2 again really, because some people need to be reminded at least twice that thinking differently does not just mean is not just creating or winning right now. Be open to new ideas, new ways of working, experimenting with process and product so you can find new ways to do things. Learn your pants off so that in the future, you can do great things you don’t have the ability to even think of yet. Be vulnerable, and ask questions you do not have the answers to as often as possible. What don’t you know that it would be a relief to admit and ask someone else about? Who is that someone? Go ask. Reflect. Repeat.
6. Ask different and much harder questions. Most planning starts with the basic question — what are we trying to achieve? (actually, a lot of planning starts without this… a topic for another day) but harder questions include things like: What are my assumptions? What if I am wrong? If it fails, what will we learn? If it exceeds expectations, what will we need next? What makes it the wrong/right time to take action? What if we did nothing? What questions do you wished you had asked yourself last time you tried to figure out something complex?
7. Get a handle on conflict. That email from that person rolls into your inbox obliterating your morning, again — and NOW EVERYTHING IS RUINED. When we believe we have been threatened or ‘triggered’ the part of our brain called the amygdala goes haywire sending adrenaline and cortisol flooding through our system. This flight or fight response disorients us, narrows our ability to see other perspectives, and can have a crippling (and long-term) effect on our ability to think clearly and to even remember accurately what happened. Actively working against ‘amygdala hijack’ is critical to expanding your ability to open up to new possibilities and think clearly. A first step is to work to just notice what things are causing this reaction and to watch what happens in your body and mind. What do you notice about how you feel when things come at you? What could you do to shift this? What does it feel like to take a few deep breaths?
8. Start to recognize new sources of information. Once you get a handle on potential ‘hijacks’ and do not get trapped or sidelined by them, you may have the ability to use what would have previously hijacked you to inform your thinking. I once had a boss who when bad news was delivered — and it could be the worst news and delivered horrifically — would calmly say, ‘Well, this is information.’ Set backs are information, grumpy colleagues are information, rejections are information, failure is information, and being really uncomfortable where you currently are is information. (See steps 2 & 5 on why new and unexpected information matters). What information might you have that you are not yet using to form a more complete picture?
9. Build (and trust) your intuition. Think of intuition as your ‘higher’ or smarter self — a self that you can tap into if you focus and stay present and trust yourself. There is subtle information all around us which we pick up on indirectly — that date that seemed great but felt wrong; a sudden fear reaction while walking alone; the small voice in your head telling you DO NOT DO THAT. We often get these signals and dismiss them as irrational nonsense, which weakens our ability to tap into them later. Be curious about what stray thoughts, dreams, changes in body chemistry, and that tight feeling in your gut might be telling you. Carl Jung said, “What we do not make conscious emerges later as fate.” If you don’t integrate those more subtle aspects of how you ‘know’ things, your motivations and the results your efforts attract will continue to be a mystery rather than something you have an opportunity to shape. What are some ways in which you could better tap into your intuition?
10. Read fiction. There is very compelling evidence linking reading literary fiction to increased empathy and improved ‘theory of mind’ (which will definitely help you with #3 above). There is also evidence that reading fiction improves brain ‘connectivity and function’ and that reading something ‘absurd’ (like Kafka) can help improve your ability to recognize patterns and think creatively by challenging the way we make meaning. Reading can offer a chance to see things from a different perspective, escape from the stresses or our day-to-day lives and what we expect to happen next, and offer us the ability to surrender and be surprised. All this while still allowing us to be ‘productive’ by increasing the ability of our brain to work smarter. What great book would you like to surrender yourself to next?
11. Get outside now. Amongst other increasingly documented positive effects of nature on our brains — making us smarter and happier — it might also help us be nicer to ourselves. A study by a Stanford researcher showed decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (the a part of the brain tied to depressive rumination) after a 90 minute walk in a large park. Those who walked in nature reported that they ‘beat themselves up less.’ Nature it turns out, may impact how you ‘allocate your attention and whether or not you focus on negative emotions.’ Ever tried thinking strategically while beating yourself up for not being able to think strategically? Go for a walk or run, smell the air, stand barefoot in the grass, touch the trees. Feeling frisky? Give a tree a big old hug. For real. What does it feel like when you are out in nature with nothing to do and nowhere to be? Go get that feeling. It belongs to you.
12. Add something to this list. Being able to notice patterns, think critically, plan ahead, see different perspectives, and more easily access wisdom, is an evolution for which there isn’t really a formula as such — it’s a practice. When you are at your best in terms of tapping into your creative and strategic potential, what works for you?
*Photo by Matthew Henry