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Good strategic thinkers find insights that make a big difference to performance and they do it regularly

“Smith. You need to think more strategically.” This was my boss, Jim. I was 19 and working at Sainsbury’s head office in Stamford Street. I had no idea what he was on about. I’d heard someone mention helicopter thinking. That still didn’t make sense. These were the days before the internet, so I couldn’t look it up. I spun around on my chair to ask the wise old wizard that was the cheddar grader. “Clive, strategic thinking. I was just asked to do more of it – what is it?” He scratched his chin and said: “No idea, and I doubt Jim could even spell it, so I wouldn’t worry about it!”

Has something similar happened to you?

I know now what I didn’t then. Firstly, those that talk about strategic thinking often cannot explain what it is. Secondly, there are many other also useful approaches to take. And thirdly, everyone can do strategic thinking. It’s not hard. “You need think strategically” has become the equivalent of telling someone who is angry to calm down: pointless.

So, what is strategic thinking and is it necessary? It is necessary. Imagine a Boston matrix. One of those things with two axes, producing four squares. The first axis is insight, and the second axis is frequency. An insight is a piece of information that is useful, leading to an action that improves performance. For example, in our house the cutlery drawer is by the sink. Every time the washer-upper was washing up, the drier-upper tried to put the cutlery away and annoyed them. Insight? Swap the cutlery drawer for the messy drawer. Strategic thinking! At work, an insight might be that ‘Microsoft costs more than G Suite – let’s move to G Suite, saving £x’. A strategic thought. And frequency is what it says on the tin.

This means that good strategic thinkers do a lot of top-right box stuff. They find insights that make a big difference to performance and they do it regularly. By comparison, people that don’t think strategically rarely identify performance improvements, and when they do, they are weak. For example, in our house, my daughter said: “We eat too many sweets. Let’s move the sweet tub out of the way of temptation.” Family response: “It’s lockdown. How else will we get through it?”. A classic weak insight and one teenager rightfully back in their box.