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Expand your capacity to think strategically

BY JEFF MASCOTT, CEO

Strategic thinking.

We all know it’s important. But ask ten different people how to think strategically and you’ll get ten different answers.

Organizations implore their employees to be more strategic, but lack the vocabulary to explain what thinking more strategically actually means. Managers coach their staff to think strategically, but lack the tools and models to effectively teach them. At Adfero, we have developed a simple but effective conceptual model for thinking strategically that might serve as a helpful tool for others as well. It offers a common language that facilitates collaboration among team members with different perspectives. The model also provides a roadmap for increasing our individual capacity to think strategically–higher, wider and farther.

Line graph displaying three dimensions of strategic thinking from left to right: far, high and wide/comprehensive

Fig 1. There are three aspects of strategic thinking, but many people only think in one direction

Thinking High

Many of us get stuck in tactical thinking. It’s easy to lose sight of the real reason for why we chose the tactics in the first place. But tactics are not the strategy.  

The most fundamental process of strategic thinking draws on the power of "why." I call this the high dimension of strategic thinking. It involves stepping out of the day to day to look at the challenge or opportunity from the 30,000 foot view. By continually asking the question why? we move from the most granular tactics to the highest-level strategy. This is the most familiar way of thinking strategically, and many of us can do this intuitively by simple reframing the question. However, the other two dimensions of strategic thinking–thinking wide and thinking far–are a bit harder.

Thinking Wide

The wide dimension challenges us to think comprehensively about a challenge or opportunity. I developed the discipline of thinking wide working alongside a colleague and friend, Chris Battle. Chris thought comprehensively at all turns by continuously asking, what else do I need to know? He would dive in to the issue at hand and learn as much as he could, continually expanding his vision to take in as much as relevant information as possible.

He would thoughtfully consider each of the categories of content that might be relevant.  For example, he would ask: what are the relevant demographic and technological trends? What laws and regulations might impact this strategy? Who are the competitors and what are they up to? Chris demonstrated to me time and again that considering these wide-ranging questions–and continuing to ask new questions–helps to shape a more comprehensive strategy.

Let’s say you are a company like McDonald’s and you are thinking about what products should be on your menu a decade from now. To cover the wider dimension of strategic thinking around this opportunity, you might ask demographic questions like what segments of the population are likely to seek convenient food options in the future? What types of food will they be looking for? What might be important to them?  

On the technology side, you might look at what new technologies might impact how and what convenience foods we consume. You would consider food labeling laws and regulations and calls from elected officials for healthier fast food options. And you would look, not only at what Burger King and Wendy’s might be doing years from now, but also how trends like food trucks and UberEATS are transforming the fast food marketplace.

Thinking wide can encompass any number of things that may impact your challenge or opportunity. And it starts with asking, what else do I need to know?

Thinking Far

While not so hard to understand conceptually, thinking far is perhaps the most difficult dimension of strategic thinking to execute. It requires that we think way out into the future, a discipline that needs to be cultivated and practiced. The far dimension is critical because we need to think now about organizing resources to meet challenges twenty or thirty years from now.

One place where this is especially critical is the Department of Defense because it can take a decade or more to build defense capabilities for the future. Knowing this, Richard Nixon in 1973 created the Office of Net Assessment and specifically tasked the office with looking decades into the military’s future and producing reports on its research for Pentagon leaders. The office has in the past sought research on nuclear proliferation, future naval warfare and the use of space, including how other military powers could target American satellites–topics very likely to significantly impact our future security.

It is the same with other companies and organizations that must make investments and determine strategies now that will have an impact decades from now. 

Three dimensions of strategic thinking from the left: far, high and wide/comprehensive

Fig 2. Thinking in one direction can limit strategic capacity. However simultaneously thinking high, wide, and far exponentially increases our strategic thinking capacity

Three-Dimensional Thinking

Simultaneously thinking high, wide and far allows us to approach challenges and opportunities three-dimensionally and exponentially increases our strategic thinking capacity. If your teams are strong in one of these realms but weaker in the other two, for example, their strategic capacity is much more limited than if they are strong across all three.

This increased capacity can help propel an organization forward in new and innovative ways. But cultural adjustments may be needed to allow this to happen. We must give our team members time to learn the discipline of increasing their strategic thinking capacity. Too often we praise staff for being busy. It makes us uncomfortable to see people staring off, lost in thought– or worse to be caught lost in thought ourselves! But it is often in the not doing that the highest, widest and farthest strategic thinking occurs.