Being able to think strategically is one of the most useful skills a person can have. It can apply in so many situations, whether you’re developing a marketing strategy, mapping your path to achieving a set of goals or even trying manoeuvre your way to the top of your organisation.
You want to train your mind to think in a certain way. The greatest strategists were able to win wars before even a single arrow had been fired because they developed winning strategies that enabled them to leverage their resources to give them the results they craved.A lot of people often get strategy confused with tactics or even with goals, but while they’re related, they’re completely different things.
Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones gives a prime example of this misunderstanding.
After her brother Tyrion points out that she’s quoting her father, she says “Why not? He has a good mind for strategy doesn’t he?”
To which Tyrion responds “Call it tactics not strategy but yes he does have a good mind for it. The best mind some would say.”
I’ll try to explain the difference using an example I was given at university.
It’s the beginning of the day and you need to go to work. So, getting to work is your goal. You have a number of potential strategies at your disposal:
- Drive in your car
- Get on a bus
- Get on a train
- Catch a lift
- Or jump in a taxi
You look at the state of the environment; the state of the traffic, how quickly you’ll get to work, how much it will cost and how much effort it will take.
You weigh these up and make a decision. Say you choose to drive home, that’s your strategy.
Tactics would be the smaller steps which make up that strategy; which roads will you take and how fast will you drive.
Goal > Strategy > Tactics
The most well-known uses for strategic thinking are in politics, warfare and the business-world. Before Sun Tzu’s The Art of War the only way you could learn strategy, was through practice. You had to get involved in politics or warfare and make potentially deadly mistakes in order to learn.
Luckily, we know have a myriad of resources from which we can learn and practice to think strategically.
Chief among them is chess. Chess has long been viewed as the ultimate strategy game and it’s not hard to see why.
You can get by to start with by planning one move at a time, but if you want to compete with the best, you need to be able to plan 3, 4 moves ahead. Chess masters are able to plan a full game of moves in their head to position their opponent where they need them to be. Naturally they also need to be able to adapt their strategy on the fly when things don’t work out exactly as planned.
As with politics, business and war, in chess in each you have an opponent that you are trying to bait and outmanoeuvre. This is why looking into chess strategy is a great primer on the subject.
Thinking two-steps ahead of everyone else is a very valuable thing to be able to do. Like a lot of thinking processes, it’s also not that difficult if you just take your time.
The first step with forming any strategy, is knowing the environment. This is true whether you’re building a military invasion plan, or a set of marketing campaigns.
If you’re forming a business strategy, you need to have a very good idea about who your competitors are, who their products appeal to and what their strategy is.
It’s difficult to come up with a strategy, if you don’t know who you’re facing. The first step is to learn everything you can about your opponent. The most important aspect of understanding your opponent is having an idea of how they will react to certain situations. Once you know this you can set up a chain of events that lead the person in exactly the direction you want them to go.
With chess, naturally this means examining every previous game that the other person has played – strategic thinking is easy but time consuming and takes a lot of mental energy. With enough practice this comes second nature and you’ll be able to react to changing circumstances quickly – which is another key element.
Always leave yourself room to adapt your strategy, don’t put all your eggs in one basket because if the situation changes, you could be left with nothing.
Once you understand how strategy works, you can start to pick apart another’s strategy and identify their goal. This way you can lead you opponent into thinking they are reaching their goal, while you are secretly working against them.
The easiest way to identify another’s strategy is to look at all the component parts. In business this would include things like pricing, promotion style, distribution channels and positioning. Map out their actions, paying attention see what they all have in common – this however generally only works for companies that are good at implementing their strategies.
A company advertising their products as premium and high-end but having lowest prices are in-congruent and show an inability to carry out their strategies.