A primer on strategic thinking


The word ‘strategic’ is used so often that we’ve lost track of what it means.  You might think it’s nothing but another bit of corporate-speak tossed around to make things sound fancier. In fact, something real and utterly important is at stake in this word.

A strategic state of mind is one that directs a systematic plan of action toward a specific result. It’s about looking at the big picture—what outcomes you’re trying to achieve—before working out the detailed tactics that might be taken to get there. This is the state of mind that makes communications activities work in the service of larger corporate goals. Being a strategic thinker demands always holding yourself to a standard of acting based on strong evidence and a logical progression of planning steps. That’s no easy thing when you’re frazzled by the day-to-day demands on your time.

Strategic thinking is like a muscle you have to strengthen by exercise: at every juncture, it demanding that you walk through the steps of specifying why you’re communicating, to achieve what result, to whom—and only then, how. Thinking strategically takes discipline, clarity and quite frankly, guts. It may stretch you beyond your comfort zones. Often, for instance, it requires challenging the collectively familiar status quo by driving conversations beyond a tactical level toward broader outcomes and results.

Thinking strategically may also push you into uncomfortable territory in its focus on evaluation. If you find thinking about evaluation difficult, it’s for good reason and you’re in excellent company. People tend to run away kicking and screaming when I introduce the topic of communications evaluation. But being interested in thinking strategically requires being interested in evaluation. It makes no sense to focus your work on targeted results unless you’re also focusing on how you’ll know whether those results have been achieved. That’s why I often say that objectives and evaluation are the ‘bookends’ of any strategic communications planning.

Getting good at the discipline of thinking strategically—defining objectives and evaluation before tactics—may seem foreign at first. (It’ll seem particularly foreign if you’re currently stuck in a frantic short-order-cook way of working.) Apply yourself to it—it’s an investment in your capacity to take on a different identity and role in your organization.

The trick to thinking strategically is to cultivate the habit of having a laser like focus on outcomes and results, rather than communications tactics.  It’s often a matter of taking a step back and considering where you want to go, and what communications approaches, messages and tactics will best get you there.  An important part of this consideration is the concept of opportunity cost – put simply, if your organization is investing its time/money/staff in “X”, it’s at the expense of “Y”.  For example, if your time and budget are fully maxed out in producing events and trade shows, it’s at the expense of doing other worthwhile activities which may in fact be more beneficial to your organization, such as exploring social media or improving your internal communication.  The biggest barrier to innovation among communicators is, in fact, that our dance card is usually already full.  If you want to have breakthrough results, it’s going to require the strategic discipline of asking these tough questions and making decisions that include careful thought to opportunity cost. Too often, communicators fall into a pattern of going through the motions and producing the same old products at the same old cycle, because “that’s just how things are done around here”.

One of the easiest ways to immediately step up your game as a strategist is to challenge those old assumptions.  Validate that you are investing your limited resources in the highest yield activities.

A general rule of thumb: do less, and do it better.

The top 10 questions in strategic communications

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