How do you shift from tactical to strategic thinking? 

In my experience, the shift from tactical to strategic thinking is profound. The first time I understood strategy was a eureka moment for me. Something clicked in my brain, and it all made sense. But how did that shift come about?

There are 9 factors that can be influenced to shift from tactical thinking to strategic thinking. These factors work for individuals as well as organisations. It will probably take half a year to a year to get a full grasp of how strategy works.

Though my journey has been somewhat longer (because I had no idea of how to develop my strategy skills), I am convinced that it is possible to get there quite quickly. But let‘s look at what brings you to shift your thinking.

Find a hard problem that requires major change to be solved

The best way to tackle the shift from „normal“ or „everyday“ or in a broad sense „tactical“ thinking to a strategic perspective is to apply it to a real problem. I am guessing, you have such a problem already, otherwise there is probably little chance you‘d find this post.

You need a really hard problem to solve, one that requires more than just applying standard advice. Here is a list of suggestions:

  • how to reliably find customers for my business
  • how do I train my team, so we win
  • how can I build a social media following of 10k+

You see, there is no honest 5 steps plan to solve these issues. They need more than this. Among other things, they need a strategy. You can see this, because there is no single best approach. Every time there are likely more working solutions than you can imagine in 5 minutes, it is highly likely that you need strategy.

Immerse yourself in literature about strategy

The second step is to really learn more about strategy. And I‘m not suggesting googling it and consume every post on the first two pages (though it is probably a step in the right direction). I mean, that you actually read a book! Yes, you read that right. There are two reasons for it:

  1. The first twenty articles of Google may contain something around 30,000 words, with a high degree of repetition. Whereas a proper book on strategy starts out with 50,000 words plus and has almost no repetition.
  2. A book you read differently. The posts found on the internet are free. A book you have to pay for. That makes it more valuable! If you are thinking „Yeah, but blog posts can be better than a book…“, then think again. A book that passed through the quality checks of a publishing house is completely different from a blog that can be put online by anyone.

If I may make a suggestion, I‘d recommend the book that helped me the most. It wasn‘t the first book on the subject that I read, but I wish it would have been.

„Good Strategy/Bad Strategy“

by Richard Rumelt

It is generally on strategy (not just business strategy), especially on the principles of good strategy. I can highly recommend it, because it is also 100% practical and therefore really interesting and a fast read-through.

I think it is also vital to read a book (!) on strategy in the field of your problem. So, if you have a chess problem, read about chess strategy. If you have a business problem, read specifically about business strategy and so on.

Research all necessary information on your problem

Coming back to your strategic challenge, you have a better idea now, what information you need in order to design your strategy. Research everything from statistics on what works best to how competitive the field is and what the other players in your field do. Since, I am a business guy, I can only provide that context. So, here is a list of what I researched for the last business strategy I was involved in creating:

  • a list of all the possible b2b-customers in Berlin
  • a list of all the competitors I could find
  • public financial data on them
  • statistics on market growth
  • statistics on salary development for employees
  • published articles on trends in the industry
  • prices of competitors (I actually called them and got a quote)
  • published articles on problems in the industry
  • public information on how the legal situation in the industry is going to develop

All in all it, took me almost four days to gather everything. And in a business setting, you are never finished researching your market. It is an ongoing process.

Try to design a first strategy for your problem

Now, that you have done your research, it is time to try your hand at the real thing. By now, your thinking ought to have made a major shift toward thinking strategically already. Designing a real world strategy, and writing it down, is going to force you to make these uncomfortable decisions and really thinking through the consequences. 

It will show you the difference between thinking about strategy and thinking strategically.

Re-read some of the advice to deepen understanding

Having your own strategy (that deserves the name) elevates you to the few, who deeply understand the difficulties of deciding without knowing how things will turn out. But you are not done yet. You thought strategically for a moment in time. Your thinking hasn‘t „shifted“ to that mode. 

With real world experience at hand, you should take another go at learning. This time round, your research can be way more specific. You probably will have noticed that certain activities seemed harder than others. Or you still find that unease somewhere in your soul that you don‘t know if you made the right decision (I still have that today…). I recommend further research into exactly these fields.

For example, I wanted to sort out for myself „What is the difference between strategy and tactics?“ and researched it. There weren‘t any nice and clean definitions. So, I came up with my view on the matter (just follow the link).

If by chance, your strategic challenge had to do with a family business, I want to suggest reading Harvard‘s Crafting an enterprise strategy for your family business. HBR is a great resource. A lot of great minds write here in an accessible manner.

In any event, keep away from your strategy at least for a week or two. It‘s necessary for your mind to let go and „forget a little bit about it“, so you can come back with a fresh eye and take it apart. If you don‘t forcefully occupy your mind with something different, you will just think that your first draft is awesome. Your mind (who actually came up with that strategy 😁) will just tell you that because it all has been so recent and you haven‘t changed your perspective yet. Further learning will do exactly that.

Force yourself to criticise your first draft

After two weeks or so, you look at your first strategy again. It‘s going to feel weird and awkward. But it‘s important. Here, I don‘t mean your style of writing. I mean the inner logic of your strategy. 

Take it apart, criticise it, laugh at it and even cry. I promise, nobody is ever going to find out. Find the wholes in your thinking.

Re-design your strategy

Then make it better!

We are not talking about a complete change in direction. Just sharpen it and bring more knowledge to the table when you have to rethink certain decisions. It is this step and the one before that will set you apart and make your strategy that much more likely to be successful.

We are usually prone to take the first thing that comes to mind and be glad that we had that idea. That is why we stick to it later on, even though, the second one (if we dare to come up with one) could be actually and obviously better.

At the end of this process, you probably end up with a solid piece of work. There will still be flaws in it. But there are going to be minor. 

The most valuable thing you can do, is to execute the strategy you came up with. This way, you will learn the most about your errors.

And you will learn another thing: The only thing harder than designing a strategy is executing it!

Find a second strategic problem

Your shift from tactical to strategic thinking is probably more than half way done. But you were in a position where you knew most of the facts and connections. You likely felt pretty comfortable when interpreting the research findings. 

Go out and find a strategic problem you know almost nothing about. In a business context, that could be an idea of entering a new market or preparing a strategy paper for somebody else. Just take something you are really unfamiliar with. 

Use your new skill set on this problem

And then use your newly won strategic thinking skills to solve that problem. Once, you have done that, your mind sees strategic problems and ways to tackle them in almost every situation. And I don‘t mean in an annoying sense, more like an awareness, just as you are always aware of what the weather is outside. Then you will have shifted from tactical thinking to strategic thinking. (By the way, your tactical thinking still works…)

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