Strategic thinking refers to a mental or cognitive process utilized by individuals to plan for the future. It involves an analytical approach that aims to address, decipher, and solve complex problems by making decisions that align with one’s overall objectives and long-term vision.
A person engaged in strategic thinking focuses on the big picture. They see the forest rather than the trees. They consider multiple variables and interconnected parts when formulating strategies (Camerer, Ho & Chong, 2015; Dhir, Dhir & Samanta, 2018).
Strategic thinking also help us to anticipate potential scenarios and navigate them effectively (Covington, 2014). They prepare for a range of outcomes to maximize returns and minimize risks.
If you want to demonstrate your strategic thinking skills for a resume, cover letter, interview, and so on, it’s best to reflect on some real-life scenarios where you’ve planned ahead and made strategic decisions that have benefited you or your organization. Some examples to stimulate your reflection are provided below.
Strategic Thinking Examples
1. Task Prioritization
This example entails the conscious ordering or ranking of tasks according to their urgency and importance.
You may be familiar with the logic of Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principle here. Activities with impending deadlines are typically considered urgent, while those with significant consequences if not done (regardless of their deadlines) are deemed important.
For instance, if you need to make a critical presentation to stakeholders next week (urgent) and also schedule annual appraisals for your team (important), you’d have to decide which takes precedence based on how significant the outcomes would be on your career or your team (Martin, 2017).
2. Efficient Resource Allocation
The purpose of efficient resource allocation is to ensure that each team member’s skills, time, and effort, as well as potential tangible resources, are distributed in a way that can maximize the project’s efficiency and output.
As an example, you have a project that requires both design and coding work. You choose to assign the design task to the team member with a strong visual skillset, and the coding job to the one with keen logical reasoning and programming skills.
Such resource allocation ensures that team members are working to their strengths, improving both work pace and output quality.
3. Timing your Input During a Team Meeting
This involves understanding the dynamics within a meeting and discerning the appropriate moment to introduce a new suggestion or instigate a change (Owen, 2014).
By comprehending the flow of the discussion, the emotions in the room, and the openness of other participants, you can pick the best moment to propose your idea, thus increasing its chances of acceptance.
For instance, you notice that colleagues are more receptive to new ideas just after they’ve successfully solved a difficult issue in a meeting. Seizing this moment of positivity, you bring up your suggestion for improving the workflow process, leading to the team giving it serious consideration.
4. Analyzing Customer Feedback
This form of strategic thinking involves gathering, reviewing, and interpreting feedback from customers to identify areas for product or service improvement.
Imagine you’re the head of a technology firm, and you’ve received numerous complaints regarding the speed and user interface of your latest software product. Instead of dismissing these issues, you interpret this feedback as a chance to upgrade your system’s functionality. By weighing various solution options and considering the potential benefits vs. inherent risks, you decide to invest in an improved version that enhances both product speed and design. By doing this, you increase user satisfaction and, in turn, company sales.
5. Delegating Tasks Based on Strengths and Expertise
This approach to strategic thinking involves assessing and understanding the skill-sets and expertise of your team members, and assigning tasks to individuals based not only on their job position, but on their unique strengths and skills.
Picture yourself as a project manager. You are overseeing a project that involves research, creativity, and meticulous data analysis. You know Chris on your team is an imaginative powerhouse who thrives when asked to think outside the box, while Jane eats spreadsheets and data analysis for breakfast. Despite Chris originally being hired for an analytics role, and Jane for a creative one, you switch their roles for this project.
This demonstrates the strategic decision to delegate tasks not based on predefined roles, but on personal strengths. It optimizes your team’s performance, ensures a more engaged staff, and increases the quality of work output (Hwang & Lockwood, 2006).
6. Setting Long-Term and Short-Term Goals
This involves defining clear, measurable objectives that are then broken down into shorter, more immediately achievable targets.
Suppose you’re the department head of a manufacturing company that wants to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30% over the next five years. A strategic thinker would break down this significant long-term goal into a series of more manageable, short-term targets.
For example, you could plan to reduce emissions by just 3% for the first year, then aim to increase this rate year by year once initial strategies are in place and functioning well (Bas, 2011). This strategic goal setting approach sets a clear direction and allows for manageable progress towards an ambitious end goal.
7. Analyzing Past Sales Data
This strategic thinking process is all about using historical sales data to forecast future trends, make business decisions, and adjust inventory accordingly.
Here’s a concrete example: you run a retail outlet that sells winter gear. Over the past few years, you’ve noticed a spike in sales of wool socks during November. In anticipation of this trend recurring, you adjust your inventory to ensure you hold sufficient stock when customers begin their winter shopping spree (Lee, Padmanabhan & Whang, 2004). This strategic thinking enables you to meet customer needs effectively while also maximizing your profits.
8. Selecting the Best Method of Communication
In this scenario, strategic thinking is about considering the nuances of your message and choosing the right channel to communicate it.
Imagine you run a non-profit organization. You’ve received a sizeable donation, and now you have a crucial decision to make. Will you send an email, make a phone call, or arrange a face-to-face meeting to express your thanks? Understanding the importance and sensitivity of saying ‘thank you’, you decide to do it in-person, to communicate your genuine gratitude effectively to the donor (Kaiser & Hogan, 2010).
9. Planning Team-Building Activities
This reflects strategic thinking in terms of enhancing team dynamics, where you plan activities to foster a better collaborative environment and improve morale.
Consider you’re the team leader, and you notice that your team members seem to work independently rather than collaborate, leading to miscommunication and workflow bottlenecks. To remedy this, you decide to plan a team-building retreat with activities that promote collaborative problem solving, trust-building, and friendly competition. These activities are strategically chosen to improve communication, rapport, and lead to a more cohesive unit.
10. Evaluating the Cost-Benefit of Attending a Workshop
This instance of strategic thinking entails conducting a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether attending a professional workshop or conference would yield valuable returns for you or your organization.
Suppose you come across a workshop that promises to impart cutting-edge strategies in digital marketing. You realize that the registration fee is quite hefty and would also require a couple of days away from work.
Now, instead of making an impulsive decision, you reflect on whether the benefits, such as knowledge acquisition, networking opportunities, and potential for enhanced business growth, outweigh the money and time investment. Considering the digital wave impacting today’s marketing trends, you decide to go ahead and attend it, seeing it as an investment in long-term business growth and personal development (Souitaris, Maestro, & Micelotta, 2007).
This shows strategic thinking in terms of evaluating the costs and benefits of an opportunity and making decisions that align with your broader professional objectives.
11. Course Selection at College for Career Goals
Strategic thinking in this context revolves around choosing academic courses that not only captivate your interest but also align with your career aspirations.
Imagine you are a college student with an inclination towards environmental conservation and sustainable development. You aspire to a career in environmental policy forming. As part of your course selection, you selectively choose subjects that focus on global environmental law, policy-making, and sustainable development theories, along with a minor in political science.
This example demonstrates how strategically thinking about your long-term career goals helps shape your immediate academic choices, setting the stage for landing your dream job post-graduation (Sin, Jones & Moore, 2008).
12. Forming Strategic Study Groups at College
This showcases strategizing aimed at enhancing learning experiences and academic performance through the formation of effective study groups.
You’re a college student taking a particularly challenging cryptography course. You acknowledge specific areas in which you struggle and identify fellow students who excel in those areas. You approach them with the strategic idea of forming a study group where you all can share different strengths and learn from each other.
Moreover, you ensure to keep the groups small (3-4 people), based on studies like Cohen (1994) which indicate that smaller groups foster more meaningful discussions and engagement. This strategic decision assists all group members in strengthening their understanding of the course material, positively impacting their academic performance.
13. Market Gap Identification
This instance of strategic thinking concerns the process of identifying unmet needs or deficiencies in the marketplace that a new product or service could fulfill.
Imagine you run a tech company. During intense research of the market, you realize many seniors struggle with the complexity of modern smartphones. Sensing an opportunity (market gap), you decide to create a user-friendly phone specifically designed for the elderly, with simplified features and larger font settings.
This decision is an example of a strategic response to identify and potentially fill a gap in the market (Spanjol, Tam, & Tam, 2015). Your company can take advantage of this exciting opportunity, leading to increased market share and improved brand reputation.
14. Product-Market Fit Analysis
Strategic thinking in this situation involves assessing whether your product or service aligns well with the current market demand.
Take the case of a Virtual Reality (VR) gaming company. The company has two product lines – one for the mass market with basic VR experiences, and another premium one that delivers high-immersion gaming experiences technically advanced users. Knowing that the majority of the target market is still not accustomed to complex VR controls, the company strategically emphasizes its basic VR line, aiming for volume sales.
Moreover, the company markets the premium line as a niche product for tech enthusiasts (Markides & Sosa, 2013). This strategic choice is driven by a sound understanding of product-market fit and enables the company to effectively meet diverging consumer needs and improve overall business performance.
15. Strategic Brand Positioning
This scenario highlights the strategic thinking involved in defining a unique value proposition and establishing a solid position in the minds of consumers.
Suppose you operate a premium organic coffee company in a competitive market. In order to distinguish your brand from the competition, you strategically position it as not just selling organic coffee, but promoting a lifestyle of wellness, sustainability, and sophistication.
Your unique selling proposition (USP) is that your coffee beans are locally sourced and ethically produced, you use environmentally friendly packaging, and your brand values align with many consumers’ growing concern for sustainability.
The resultant brand positioning ensures your brand’s perceived distinctiveness, aligning with the consumers who value both quality and environmental conscientiousness (Kirchgeorg, Krey, & Heitmann, 2012). This strategic positioning attracts a particular target audience, builds strong customer relationships, and promotes brand loyalty.
Skills Needed for Strategic Thinkers
16. Analytical Ability: Analytical ability pertains to one’s capacity to assess a situation or problem, dissect it into smaller more manageable chunks, and examine these parts in order to gain a better understanding. This skill aids in breaking down complex issues, making them more understandable and therefore easier to tackle strategically.
17. Problem-Solving: Problem-solving is the ability to navigate through obstacles or challenges, identify effective solutions and implement them in a timely manner. This skill is an essential part of strategic thinking as it involves taking calculated steps to address and overcome issues that may deter the progression of an individual or organization.
18. Critical Thinking: Critical thinking involves questioning assumptions, evaluating different perspectives, and justifying one’s reasoning or decisions based on evidence. It’s integral to strategic thinking, as it enables informed and balanced decisions that align with long-term objectives.
19. Forecasting: Forecasting entails predicting future trends or events based on past and present data. In strategic thinking, forecasting helps to anticipate possible future scenarios, ensuring plans are robust and can adapt to a range of potential outcomes.
20. Flexibility & Adaptability: Flexibility and adaptability involve adjusting plans or responses as situations change. This skill is vital for strategic thinkers, as it allows them to update their strategies in response to unexpected events or new information.
21. Visionary Mindset: A visionary mindset involves the ability to envision future possibilities, create innovative ideas, and inspire others with this vision. It is crucial in strategic thinking as it guides the direction of strategic planning, setting the course for future actions.
22. Holistic Understanding: Holistic understanding refers to the ability to view a situation as a whole, recognizing the interconnectedness of different elements. In strategic thinking, this skill ensures a comprehensive view of challenges and opportunities, fostering effective decision-making.
23. Prioritization: Prioritization involves distinguishing between tasks based on their urgency and impact, and then ordering them accordingly. In strategic thinking, this skill aids in focusing resources and efforts on the most crucial aspects first, promoting productive work or maturation of plans.
24. Active Listening: Active listening involves giving full attention to the speaker, understanding their message, and providing appropriate feedback. In strategic thinking, this skill ensures comprehension of different perspectives or novel ideas, leading to informed strategic decisions.
25. Decisiveness: Decisiveness is the ability to make firm decisions quickly. In strategic thinking, being decisive is paramount, as it ensures timely implementation of strategies, keeping pace with the dynamic environment.
26. Empathy & Perspective Taking: Empathy and perspective taking involve understanding another’s perspective and responding with emotional intelligence. In strategic thinking, these skills can promote better collaboration and decision-making adjusted to stakeholders’ needs and feelings.
27. Curiosity & Continuous Learning: Curiosity entails having a strong desire to learn and understand, while continuous learning involves a commitment to regularly update and improve one’s knowledge and skills. In strategic thinking, these traits stimulate exploration of new ideas and approaches, keeping strategies fresh and responsive to changing contexts.
28. Synthesizing Information: Synthesizing information is the ability to explore various sources of data and combine these in a meaningful way. In strategic thinking, this skill helps in making sense of complex data, contributing to sound and informed decision making.
29. Long-term Planning: Long-term planning involves setting goals for the future and devising strategies to achieve them. In strategic thinking, long-term planning allows for the sustained achievement of objectives, giving foresight and direction to immediate actions.
30. Scenario Planning: Scenario planning is the process of forecasting future possibilities and designing appropriate responses. In strategic thinking, this skill aids in preparing for numerous outcomes, ensuring resilience in the face of change and uncertainty.
31. Risk Management & Assessment: Risk management and assessment involve identifying potential risks, assessing their impact, and devising methods to mitigate them. In strategic thinking, this skill ensures plans are robust and adaptable, maintaining progress even when risks emerge.
32. Resource Allocation: Resource Allocation involves assigning resources (like time, money, or staff) to tasks, based on their importance and expected impact. In strategic thinking, efficient resource allocation can optimize productivity and effectiveness while minimizing waste.
33. Systems Thinking: Systems thinking involves understanding how different elements within a system interrelate and influence each other over time. As part of strategic thinking, this skill allows for more comprehensive and effective strategies that consider the broader context and relationships between components.
34. Collaboration & Teamwork: Collaboration and teamwork involve working effectively with others towards a shared goal. In strategic thinking, these skills facilitate a productive exchange of ideas, collective problem-solving, and effective implementation of strategies.
35. Effective Communication: Effective communication involves clearly expressing ideas, questions, and decisions, while also receiving and understanding others’ input properly. In strategic thinking, effective communication ensures alignment of team understanding, fostering informed and collective decision-making.
Strategic thinking is the practice of preparing for the future by making informed decisions based on long-term vision. It involves forecasting, ideation, evaluation, and application, with the ultimate aim of achieving success in an evolving world. To demonstrate your strategic thinking skills, consider the ways you have thought ahead and planned accordingly in a variety of contexts, including in the workplace, entrepreneurship, school, or even justnavigating challenging life situations.
Camerer, C. F., Ho, T. H., & Chong, J. K. (2015). A psychological approach to strategic thinking in games. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 3, 157-162. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2015.04.005
Covington, M. V. (2014). Strategic thinking and the fear of failure. In J. Segal, S. Chipman, & R. Glasser (Eds.) Thinking and learning skills (pp. 389-416). London: Routledge.
Dhir, S., Dhir, S., & Samanta, P. (2018). Defining and developing a scale to measure strategic thinking. Foresight, 20(3), 271-288. doi: https://doi.org/10.1108/FS-10-2017-0059
Dionisio, M. A. (2017). Strategic thinking: The role in successful management. Journal of Management Research, 9(4), 44-57.
Shaik, A. S., & Dhir, S. (2020). A meta-analytical review of factors affecting the strategic thinking of an organization. foresight, 22(2), 144-177. doi: https://doi.org/10.1108/FS-08-2019-0076
Toma, S. G., Marinescu, P., & Gradinaru, C. (2016). Strategic planning and strategic thinking. Revista Economica, 68(5), 168-175.
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]