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I’ve spent the past week helping leaders write developing plans. And a common theme has been how to develop strategic thinking.

The first hurdle here is that strategic thinking can mean different things to different people. Generally speaking though, it refers to one of three abilities:

  • The ability to think and plan ahead
  • The ability to see the bigger picture and broader context – to look beyond an individual deal or issue
  • And finally, the ability to join the dots – to connect and see the patterns in the data.

And to improve these thinking skills there are typically five basic things you can do.

  1. You can write a 2-year strategic plan or discussion document for how you would develop your area. This doesn’t need to be a 38-page masterpiece: a one-pager or SWOT analysis will do. And once done you can then present it and discuss it with your boss. This both gives you practice in writing a plan and forward-thinking, and highlights to your boss that you can do this stuff.
  2. You can read. Then read, read, and read some more. Ideally it should be something business-related; but frankly anything that stretches your thinking and gets you looking at things from different perspectives would work. The challenge here is that finding time to read regularly can be tough, but there are two solutions that can help. Ideally you should use both. First, you can try to turn your reading into a habit. Make it something that you do every day at a particular time, say just before bed or after dinner. And keep it bite-sized, say just 10 minutes, to make it manageable. Second, you can skip the reading and try watching videos or listening to podcasts instead. With the huge number of TED Talks videos available and podcasts on almost every topic you can imagine, accessing information has never been easier. And for many people watching a video or listening to a podcast feels easier than reading. So choose a media that works for you. Moreover, if you want a build on this, then try presenting on one particular article or video to your team once a month. The act of articulating the ideas and your thinking about them will help cement the learning. And of course it becomes a learning opportunity for your team, too. Alternatively, as another way to accomplish the same thing, you could agree with your team to all read a particular article or watch a video and then discuss it as a group. This adds an element of debate which can then help you see things from different angles.
  3. Find a strategy buddy. What I mean by that is find someone with whom you can discuss issues and with whom you can have a good debate – preferably someone who tends to see things differently to you. You could both arrange to read the same article or watch the same video and then meet over coffee to discuss it. And it’s the discussion that’s key to learning here: the fact that you are articulating your thinking and debating things. (thanks to my wonderful colleague Francesca Elston for this suggestion).
  4. You can attend a strategic thinking course. I’m not a great fan of these, because there are a lot of poor ones. So look for two things in particular. Make sure it is an open course – one which people from a variety of different industries and cultures will attend. And make sure that it is primarily case-study led and not theoretical. This combination of analysing real business issues and being exposed to different perspectives does seem to help many people
  5. Finally, a more frivolous but potentially still useful offering. Try playing brain games. Soduko. Crossword puzzles. Whatever takes your fancy – there are certainly enough to choose from these days. But something that gets you thinking and literally exercises your brain. Because just like physical muscles, your brain can benefit from a good workout, too…

That’s my starter list, anyway. What would you add?