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How to improve your strategic thinking

COVID-19 has all of us thinking in the short-term, in what will happen over the next several months. And even in the most stable of years – which 2020 certainly hasn’t been — we aren’t used to thinking about the long term. Managers are often “doers” — action-oriented people who act quickly and in the now to achieve results.

But planning for the long term is at the core of what managers must do. Thinking about the future and developing the necessary strategic capacities will allow you to write today what you want for your company tomorrow. For that, strategic thinking is essential.

How to develop strategic thinking?

Here are three simple tools that can help:

  • The Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental and Legal (PESTEL) analysis is a tool that allows you to analyze external opportunities and threats to a company at a given time. Use it frequently to see how different factors evolve and what aspects of the environment can affect them.
  • Maslow’s Pyramid. This classic of consumer psychology holds that people move up the hierarchy of needs as we meet the most basic needs. In times of crisis like the current one, it is likely that our consumers are going down the pyramid. Therefore, some products or services will not be of interest and you must anticipate it.
  • Porter’s 5 Forces. The benchmark for competitive strategy can help you to keep thinking about what is changing or what could change in your environment and your value proposition.

Beyond these tools, here are:

10 steps for managers to improve their strategic thinking.

1. Blinders off: learn to see what nobody else sees

If you’re putting on mental blinders and only looking straight ahead, you’re missing a lot of information along the way. From time to time you have to turn your head to look around. It’s a matter of opening your eyes fully to see more and detect the opportunities missed by others.

2. Stretch your wings: fly beyond the merely tactical

When you walk, your eyes are fixed on the ground so you don’t trip on objects in your path. This is tactical. Strategy is not about walking, but rather flying, so as to see the bigger picture. When you start working in a company you have to begin by walking, but as you grow within the company you have to learn to fly and develop the ability to see beyond the merely tactical.

3. Become passionate: enjoy what you do

We spend a lot of time working, so it’s important to enjoy it, to feel proud, to make it worth the effort. You have to want to do what you do: meet with and work with your team, take decisions, imagine the future. If you only do it because someone makes you do it, it will not work.

4. Take the reins: manage your time and delegate

Time is our most limited resource. Think about your daily life: how many of the things you do could be done by a member of your team?

5. Trust your team: let it grow

A very important part of strategic planning consists of thinking how to make the company grow, and the company only grows if its people grow. It’s an executive’s responsibility to make the members of his or her team grow, giving them the power to take decisions. Allow your collaborators to share fully in successes.

6. Don’t be afraid: take decisions

Read, listen and learn — but take your own decisions. There are thousands of books about strategy on Amazon, but the best book on strategy is the one you write yourself with what you do each day. When you take a decision, stick with it. Don’t continually question everything.

7. Be consumer-centric: center yourself on the client

Put yourself in the shoes of your clients, live their experiences. If you’re a food company, your work doesn’t end at the shop shelves, it must reach all the way into consumers’ kitchens.

8. Be flexible: adapt to change

Things move so fast that a strategic plan, once it’s been drafted and printed, already needs revision. Agility is an essential ability for executives. You have to be obstinate in your vision but very flexible with the details of implementation.

9. Call for the ball: make things happen

In matters of strategy, thinking is important but it isn’t everything: if you don’t do anything with it, it’s as if it doesn’t exist. Like the great footballers, you have to call for the ball, not avoid it.

10. Look ahead: anticipate the future

That may seem impossible at a moment of great uncertainty. But in times like these, envisioning the future will mean envisioning different scenarios. The companies that win are those that write the future.

Discover the 13 questions to find out if you are a good leader.


IESE’s Masters and Executive Education programs which cover a wide range of formats and topics, will help you improve your strategic thinking. Also, the Getting Things Done program is designed for business leaders and senior decision-makers from both private and public sectors responsible for driving strategic change initiatives across their organizations.

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