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Published on July 29, 2020

How to Build Strategic Thinking Skills for Effective Leadership

How to Build Strategic Thinking Skills for Effective Leadership

Have you been thinking of how you can be a more strategic leader during these uncertain times? Has the pandemic thrown a wrench at all your carefully laid out plans and initiatives?

You’re not alone. The truth is, we all want some stability in our careers and teams during this disruptive pandemic.

However, this now requires a bit more effort than before and making the leap from merely surviving to thriving means buckling down to some serious strategic thinking and maintaining a determined mindset.

Is There a Way to Thrive Despite These Disruptions?

Essentially – yes, although you need to be willing to put in the work. Every leader wants to develop strategic thinking skills so that they can enhance overall team performance and boost their company’s success, but what exactly does it mean to be strategic in the context of the times we live in?

If you happen to be in a leadership position in your organization right now, you are most probably navigating precarious waters given the disruptions caused by the pandemic. There’s a lot more pressure than before because your actions and decisions will have a much greater impact these days not just on you, but also to the people who are part of your team.

Companies often bring me in to coach executives on strategic thinking and planning. And while pre-pandemic I would usually start by highlighting the advantages of strategic thinking, nowadays, I always begin these Zoom coaching sessions by driving home the point that this pandemic has now made strategic thinking not just an option but an absolute must.

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Assessing and making plans through the lens of a good strategy might require significant work at first. Nevertheless, you can take comfort in the fact that the rewards will far outweigh the effort, as you’ll soon see after following the 8 strategic steps I have outlined below.

8 Steps to Strategic Thinking

As events unfold during these strange times, you’re bound to feel wrong-footed every now and then. Being a leader during this pandemic means preparing for more change not just for you, but for your whole team as well.

As states and cities go through a cycle of lockdowns and reopening, employees will experience the full gamut of human emotions in dizzying speed, and you will often be called on to provide insight and stability to your team and workplace.

Strategic thinking is all about anticipation and preparation. Rather than expending your energy merely helping your company put out fires and survive, you can put the time to better use by charting out a solid plan that can protect and help you and your company thrive.

Take the following steps to build solid initiatives and roll out successful projects:

Step 1: Step Back, Then Set the Scope

One of the things that leaders get wrong during their first attempt at strategic thinking is expecting that it is just another item on a checklist. The truth is, you need to take a good, long look at the bigger picture before anything else. This means decisively prioritizing and stepping away from tasks that can be delegated to others. Free up your schedule so you can focus on this crucial task at hand.

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Then, proceed with setting the scope and the strategic goals of the project or initiative you plan to build or execute. Ask yourself the bigger question of why you need to embark on a particular project and when would be the right time to do so.

You need to set a timeline as well, anywhere from 6 months to 5 years. Keep in mind that your projections will deteriorate the further out you go as you make longer-term plans.

For this reason, add extra resources, flexibility, and resilience if you have a longer timeline. You should also be making the goals less specific if you’re charting it out for the longer term.

Step 2: Make a List of Experts

Make and keep a list of credible people who can contribute solid insight and feedback to your initiative. This could range from key stakeholders to industry experts, mentors, and even colleagues who previously planned and rolled out similar projects.

Reach out to the people on this list regularly while you work through the steps to bring diverse insight into your planning process. This way, you will be able to approach any problem from every angle.

Bringing key stakeholders into this initial process will also display your willingness to listen and empathize with their issues. In return, this will build trust and potentially pave the way for smoother buy-in down the line.

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Step 3: Anticipate the Future

After identifying your goals and gathering feedback, it’s time to consider what the future would look like if everything goes as you intuitively anticipate. Then, lay out the kind and amount of resources (money, time, social capital) that might be needed to keep this anticipated future running.

Step 4: Brainstorm on Potential Internal and External Problems

Next, think of how the future would look if you encountered unexpected problems internal and external to the business activity that seriously jeopardize your expected vision of the future. Write out what kind of potential problems you might encounter, including low-probability ones.

Assess the likelihood that you will run into each problem. To gauge, multiply the likelihood by the number of resources needed to address the problem. Try to convert the resources into money if possible so that you can have a single unit of measurement.

Then, think of what steps you can take to address these internal and external problems before they even happen. Write out how much you expect these steps might cost. Lastly, add up all the extra resources that may be needed because of the different possible problems and all the steps you committed to taking to address them in advance.

Step 5: Identify Potential Opportunities, Internal and External

Imagine how your expected plan would look if unexpected opportunities came up. Most of these will be external but consider internal ones as well. Then, gauge the likelihood of each scenario and the number of resources you would need to take advantage of each opportunity. Convert the resources into money if possible.

Then, think of what steps you can take in advance to take advantage of unexpected opportunities and write out how much you expect these steps might cost. Finally, add up all the extra resources that may be needed because of the different unexpected opportunities and all the steps you committed to taking to address them in advance.

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Step 6: Check for Cognitive Biases

Check for potential cognitive biases that are relevant to you personally or to the organization as a whole, and adjust the resources and plans to address such errors.[1] Make sure to at least check for loss aversion, status quo bias, confirmation bias, attentional bias, overconfidence, optimism bias, pessimism bias, and halo and horns effects.

Step 7: Account for Unknown Unknowns (Black Swans)

To have a more effective strategy, account for black swans as well. These are unknown unknowns -unpredictable events that have potentially severe consequences.

To account for these black swans, add 40 percent to the resources you anticipate. Also, consider ways to make your plans more flexible and secure than you intuitively feel is needed.

Step 8: Communicate and Take the Next Steps

Communicate the plan to your stakeholders, and give them a heads up about the additional resources needed. Then, take the next steps to address the unanticipated problems and take advantage of the opportunities you identified by improving your plans, as well as allocating and reserving resources.

Finally, take note that there will be cases when you’ll need to go back and forth these steps to make improvements, (a fix here, an improvement there) so be comfortable with revisiting your strategy and reaching out to your list of experts.

Conclusion

A great way to deal with feelings of uncertainty during this pandemic is to anticipate obstacles with a good plan – and a sure road to that is practicing strategic thinking.

In the coming months and years, you’ll need to continue navigating uncharted territory so that you can lead your team to safe waters. Regularly doing these 8 steps to strategic thinking will ensure that you can prepare for and adapt  to the coming changes with increasing clarity, perspective, and efficiency.[2]

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Featured photo credit: JESHOOTS.COM via unsplash.com

Reference

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Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

Cognitive neuroscientist and behavioral economist; CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts; multiple best-selling author

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Published on July 27, 2020

How to Avoid Binary Thinking and Think More Clearly

How to Avoid Binary Thinking and Think More Clearly

Unfortunately, we live in a world of either/or, with us or against us, black or white thinking. You’re either conservative or liberal. You’re for gay rights or against them. For goodness sake, now you’re either pro-putting a mask on your face or against it. All of this has to do with the human tendency to engage in binary thinking.

What is Binary Thinking?

Binary thinking, also known as dichotomous thinking, happens when even complex concepts, ideas, and problems are overly simplified into being one side or another. The gray area in the middle is ignored or goes unnoticed.

Binary thinking helps us feel a sense of certainty. In a complex world, binary thinking can feel comforting. The uncertainty of complexity can be scary and anxiety-provoking, so it’s no wonder people fall into binary thinking, especially during uncertain times like we’re currently experiencing.

As Bob Johansen says, “Categories move us toward certainty, but away from clarity.”[1]

If I’m worried about a global pandemic, racial unrest, and the future of my family’s survival, thinking about the complexity of the world can be overwhelming.

No one understands everything about, well, everything. Therefore, our brains take a shortcut to make us feel better, and we oversimplify things into general categories, resulting in binary thinking.

The Problem With Binary Thinking

The problem with binary thinking is that it isn’t accurate. Gray area does exist. All the time. It may make us feel better to think in terms of this or that, us or them, him or her, but it’s not actually how the world works.

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When we’re engaging in binary thinking, we’re stuck making assumptions. As Johansen says, “Being stuck in categorical thought doesn’t actually involve much thinking at all—you just assume without thinking that new experiences will fit into your old boxes, buckets, labels, generalizations, and stereotypes.”

Binary thinking also leads to conflict and detachment. When we make assumptions about others by lumping them into preconceived categories, we aren’t being curious about them, and we aren’t trying to investigate nuance that might actually bring us closer together.

So, how can we stop thinking in a binary way?

7 Ways to Avoid Binary Thinking

1. Try New Things

If we’re ever going to break out of the bad habit of binary thinking, we need to go to new places and try some new things. Life is complicated and messy, so when we get out there and do some living, we at least put ourselves in the position to encounter new ideas and perspectives.

Take a class, learn a language, find a new hobby, travel, or just do things differently than you did yesterday. Part of breaking our old habit of binary thinking is switching up our everyday lived experience.

2. Meet New People

The same goes for meeting new people. If everyone in your social media feed looks and thinks like you, you’re probably stuck in a feedback loop. You spout off some binary thinking, and then your friends agree with said binary thinking, and the cycle continues.

Break out of binary thinking by meeting new people—people from other cultures, races, religions, and backgrounds. But it’s not enough to just meet them. We also need to be curious and open to their perspectives.

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3. Cultivate Curiosity

Even when you don’t agree with someone, it’s important to ask lots of questions and approach each interaction with a sense of authentic curiosity in order to break out of your binary thinking.

I like to play a game I call Curious Detective[2] when I meet new people. Instead of talking about myself, I pretend my job is to learn as much as I can about them. Either that, or I’ll play a game called Hard-Hitting Reporter where I pretend to be a reporter who’s really trying to get to the bottom of what makes this person tick. This helps me to be genuinely curious about other person instead of approaching conversations as an opportunity to gab about myself.

4. Listen With an Open Mind

It’s also important to slow down. Our initial, gut reactions are often examples of binary thinking. We tend to make assumptions and snap judgments before we gather all the information needed to truly gain clarity.

Break that habit by slowing down your reactions. Pause and reflect before you jump to conclusions, and if you do find yourself mentally lumping things into broad categories, catch yourself, stop, and then try to see the broader picture.

And listen. Instead of trying to cram new information into the limited categories you already have, keep your mind open. Let new information be confusing and complex instead of fitting neatly in those binary categories you’re used to.

5. Build Empathy

Brene Brown writes, “Perspective taking is listening to the truth as other people experience it and acknowledging it as the truth.”[3] This means that when you’re meeting those new people and trying those new things, you need to actually listen for the truth in their experience instead of trying to force them to fit into your preconceived assumptions.

A great example of this is happening with the Black Lives Matters protests the world over. White people are not taking perspective when we lump all Black people together or interpret their experiences through our own perspectives. Perspective taking is when we actually listen to their experiences and acknowledge them as truth.

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We invite gray area back into our lives when we acknowledge that just because someone’s truth is different than ours, it doesn’t mean it’s not true.

This builds empathy. Brown explains, “Empathy is incompatible with shame and judgment. Staying out of judgment requires understanding. We tend to judge those areas where we’re the most vulnerable to feeling shame ourselves.” Instead of shutting down because we feel shame or judgment, real empathy comes from honoring other people’s experiences and truths and being open to the multiplicity of perspectives.

People don’t all think and feel the same way, and that’s actually a good thing.

6. Don’t Fall for the Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is when you know a little about a topic and are, therefore, overly confident about your expertise in that topic[4]. When people don’t know anything about a topic, they have low confidence in their expertise. However, as soon as they know a tiny bit, their confidence soars.

Then, the more people learn, the less confident they become because they begin to realize that it’s more complex than they initially realized. Once someone starts to actually become an expert in a field, their confidence finally starts to gradually increase again.

Knowing about the Dunning-Kruger Effect is important if you want to avoid binary thinking. Our smartphones give us access to the basics about any and every topic. This primes us for feeling way too confident about our understanding of way too many things.

If you know a little bit about something, please also know that your confidence is probably unjustifiably high. You are not an expert and do not understand the complexities of the field yet.

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Stay humble and learn more before bragging and boasting about how much of an expert you are. Also, binary thinking should be a good clue for you that you’re actually just making assumptions and generalizations instead of actually being an expert in the field.

7. Embrace Uncertainty

Finally, if we want to stop our binary thinking, we need to remind ourselves every day that the world is complex and that we don’t know nearly as much as we sometimes think we do. While this may cause anxiety, it’s an important realization to embrace if you want to grow intellectually.

Full-Spectrum Thinking

Johansen calls the antidote to binary thinking full-spectrum thinking. Instead of making assumptions and broad generalizations, full-spectrum thinking is when we investigate the nuance and explore the gray areas.

That’s what we’re aiming for if we want to avoid binary thinking. We need to stop ourselves when we start making broad generalizations and assumptions and actively look for complexity and gray area. Slow down, learn more, and let there be more truths than the one you’re used to. Sit with complexity and uncertainty and let it motivate you to learn more instead of being overly confident about your expertise.

Final Thoughts

Binary thinking, while useful for human survival, can be harmful as it limits the experiences we have. If more people primed themselves for full-spectrum thinking, we certainly wouldn’t live in such a disconnected and divisive world because more people would be engaged with each other’s diverse perspectives instead of lumping each other into preconceived categories. Start developing full-spectrum thinking and open yourself up to more possibilities.

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Featured photo credit: Sharon McCutcheon via unsplash.com

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