strategic thinking

Five Skills to Improve Your Strategic Thinking

The ability to take strategic decisions can lead the organization to achieve business success as firms can’t preserve its existence without a strategy that maintains its long-term growth. Having the ability to take such decisions is one of the most favorable skills in almost all types of business including the design business. Even for employees who don’t have to take critical decisions inside the company, the strategic thinking helps them to build a sustainable growth rate for their career and skills acquisition. The term strategic thinking refers to the thinking methodology s applied by individuals in order to achieve success such as solving problems or achieving business success.

For design managers, the strategic thinking helps them to forecast the hidden success behind different trends and decisions, which contribute to helping the company’s endeavors to lead the market. Additionally, it helps to reduce the innovation risk as this instinct lets the managers understand which innovative ideas can have a high impact in the market and subsequently invest cost, time, and the team’s effort in it.

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Part of being a strategic thinker relates to your personality as the majority of the strategic thinkers are able to anticipate the future, curious, focus on long-term plans, able to take risks, creative, good learners, and able to prioritize their tasks. However, everyone is able to develop their strategic thinking skills with varied levels. Developing some skills such as the below tips can help improving your overall strategic thinking capabilities.

Have a Long-Term Vision

strategic thinking is closely related to the ability to anticipate and have a long-term vision in order to understand the upcoming changes and challenges in the business, and subsequently be able to advise the organization the most successful pathway to take. Organizations’ existence is closely linked to the stakeholder’s ability to forecast the future and understand the new trends and the opportunities they create.

The previous experience plays an essential role to build this anticipating instinct as it helps you to learn from the previous trends and be able to understand what the new trends are hiding. Learning about the different trends in the industry and the related technologies can help as well in building an ice about the hidden gems that can be transformed into an opportunity for the organization. For example, introducing the social network trends in examples like Facebook and MySpace helped companies to take the opportunity of this success to establish new innovative solutions that are based o the same technology such as Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and many others. Another way to build the anticipation instinct is the ability to build innovation within the organization by understanding the different types of innovation and how to use to address consumer current and future needs.

ikea flat packing
IKEA flat packing

One of the interesting examples about the ability to anticipate is the IKEA flat packing strategy which allows IKEA to separate its products into parts and let the consumer assembly it at home. The idea started in the 1960s when IKEA needed to transport large furniture using small cars. They dissembled the furniture and reassembled it at the consumer side. This trend helped IKEA to reduce the transporting costs, fuel consumption, and allow its consumers to interact with the product and be part of the manufacturing process.

Think Critically

Instead of jumping directly to decisions or solutions for problems, the critical thinking helps you to make decisions through objective evaluation and analysis of problems and ideas. This can be achieved through a thinking methodology that goes through three phases; observing the current situation, ask questions to clearly define the problem, and find solutions based on the answers to the questions.

This thinking methodology helps to build a coherent strategic thinking approach by addressing the different aspects of the problem through addressing the situation from different perspectives.

Be a Good Observer

In order to analyze and evaluate situation accurately, you need to be a good observer in the first place. Observation is one of the basic research methods that we use in every single day in our lives. However, few are able to become a good observer to identify the different details of the situation, employees behavior, or the relation between different factors that affect a specific situation.

Observation includes building a clear ubiquitous vision about the situation in order to take the right decision which is required to address strategic thinking challenges. This can be achieved by thoroughly analyze the current situation from all the perspectives. One of the common tools to evaluate problems is the Cause-Effect Diagram which allows you to visually represent the different causes that lead to the problem in order to reach a proper solution. Taking decision tools such as the Decision Matrix and Decision Trees help to make a decision based on giving an average rate for all the different choices.

The SWOT Analysis is another common tool that can help you to analyze new opportunities through understanding the strengths, weakness, opportunities, and thread related to this opportunity to strategically understand its business viability.

NEST thermostat
NEST thermostat at home (Source: NEST)

NEST Thermostat is one of the examples of being a good observer. The company, which is now acquired by Google, focus on reducing and managing the energy consumption in houses through installing a smart system that controls the consumption based on the house owners activities. The company observed the problem and find a solution that turned to be a successful product.

Open to Discussion

Many people hate to listen to opinions or ideas that offend with their thoughts and ideologies, which puts them into the trap of their own ideas. They surround themselves with people how only agree with them or read about theories that meet with their point of views. In order to build a strategic thinking about specific project, strategy, or decision, we need to build a broader understanding of the situation from different perspectives. This involves being open-minded and willing to listen to other opinions even if they are offending yours.

This can be achieved by opening the dialog between all the stakeholders to share their ideas about the project during the meetings. Also, it is important to dare to share critical issues and discuss it with the team in order to understand the different point of views over the course of reaching a proper solution.

Honestly, many managers avoid this type of discussion due to the time consumption of the open discussions especially when the team themselves are not willing to accept other ideas. In this case, the meeting can run in a form of a brainstorming session using any of the tools such as the six thinking hats, mind maps, reversed brainstorming, and others. These tools allow the manager to moderate the flow of the ideas through moving between clear stages wishing a determined timeframe.

IBM design thinking
IBM design thinking model elements

Opening the discussion appears obvious in IBM design thinking model, which focus on the continuous communication between the stakeholders and the consumer in order to keep everyone in the loop and have the business strategy clear for everyone.

Learn, Learn, and Learn

Strategic thinkers are good learners. While most of the managers afraid to fail, they learn from failure more than they learn from success. We all avoid failure in every step in our lives, however, we can’t prevent it. People react differently to failure, only the strategic thinkers can take advantage of the failure by analyzing the reasons that lead to this failed experience and how to avoid it in the future. Handling failure with this strategy helps you to build a long-term improvement plan as your strategy to handle situations improve along with learning from the previous failure experiences.

iPhone 7 plus
iPhone Plus is an example of how Apple learnt from the market trends. (Source: Apple.com)

One of the examples that reflect the learning nature of successful companies is the release of the iPhone Plus by Apple. From the first state, it seemed like Steve Jobs was not one of the supporters of the big phone idea. However, along with the Samsung success to sell phones with the big size as an advantage marketing point, Apple started to establish a new big phone to target this segment in the market.

In the middle of high competency and the ongoing battle to achieve market success, strategic thinking becomes one of the important skills that every employee or business owner need to acquire. While it can be considered as a talent, it can be developed through improving the above skills that can help you to observe the current state of the business, forecast the successful trends, and build a strategy to achieve success in this track.


Rafiq Elmansy is the founder of Designorate.com, author, and design and innovation consultant. He is an affiliated faculty teaching design at the American University in Cairo. He holds a master degree in Design Management with Distinction from Staffordshire University, UK. He has more than 17 years experience in the field of UXD and interaction design, and his books are published by John Wiley, O’Reilly Media and Taylor and Francis. He is also a contributor at the Design Management Review. Rafiq is a jury board member for the A'Design Awards, Poster for Tomorrow, and Adobe Achievements Awards. His design artwork was exhibited in many locations including Croatia, South Africa, Brazil, and Spain.