During these times of change and challenge many of us have been forced to step back and reassess our businesses, our career and indeed life in general. When we are pushed outside our comfort zone, we often have no choice but to instigate change. This brings us into the territory of strategic thinking, the ability to see the bigger picture and to plot a purposeful course forward. To become a better strategic thinker, it helps to focus on three key areas.

First, acknowledging your present reality. This involves facts and figures, the evidence that supports your honest assessment of your current situation. From there you can start to shape your vision for the future.

External influences will have a role to play including the opportunities and threats present in your environment. (SWOT and PEST models are helpful.) Of course, your vision will be driven by your intrinsic motivation, what you want to create, your personal goals and dreams, even your sense of life purpose.

An engaging vision becomes your North Star. The final area is strategic planning, identifying the projects, initiatives and actions that will bridge the gap between where you are now and where you wish to be.

New questions lead to new solutions

'To ask the right question is already half the solution of a problem.' Carl Jung

Strategic thinking starts with a good brainstorm and a good brainstorm starts with good questions. Einstein said that if you gave him an hour to solve a problem, and his life depended on getting the right answer, he would spend 55 minutes figuring out what questions to ask.For if I knew the proper questions,’ he said, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.’

When I work with management teams in shaping strategy, or coaching clients on their personal life vision and goals, we don’t jump straight into traditional brainstorming. We start by brainstorming questions. There are several reasons why I believe this is the optimal approach.

  • In times of crisis, fresh thinking is required and it is new questions that lead to new insights and perspectives;
  • Engaging and solution-focused questions empower and inspire us, they are the foundation of creativity and innovation;
  • Brainstorming for questions makes it easier to venture into uncharted territory. There’s a freedom to it and less pressure to find solutions straight away;
  • Spending time identifying questions helps us move beyond limiting assumptions or outlooks that may no longer be valid;
  • Managers can temporarily step out of their habit of offering solutions and lean into curiosity and lateral thinking. It levels the playing field;
  • Asking questions is simply how we learn;
  • It eases social anxiety, the fear people can have as to how their ideas or contributions will be judged. It also minimises people coasting on the contributions of colleagues;
  • At the highest level, all strategies and plans and indeed companies exist as answers to questions. Therefore it makes sense to go back to the fundamentals and refocus on the questions that compel us and propel us forward.

All my clients are experts on their lives and businesses, so when I facilitate strategy sessions and we take this question first approach, it reinforces that they are the only ones who can identify ideas and actions for their particular situation. This avoids the ‘not invented here’ mindset when people feel somebody external is feeding them solutions.

Powerful questions

Quality conversations are the heartbeat of quality businesses. Equally, if you are seeking change in your personal life this will also involve having new conversations.

Traditional strategic brainstorming questions such as ‘how do I/we define success?’ ‘What would we like to achieve over the next year?’ or ‘what are our customers seeking from us now and into the future?’ will stimulate healthy conversation and certainly generate ideas. But let me share with you some examples of questions that have come out of strategy sessions where we focused on spending time brainstorming questions first.

  1. How can we educate our stakeholders as to the value we create for them?
  2. How can we positively surprise and delight our people (staff) in subtle and personalised ways?
  3. How can we acknowledge and value colleagues' contributions in these difficult times?
  4. How can we ‘wow’ our customers?
  5. How can we energise, engage and motivate our staff in new and novel ways?

Here are some questions that personal coaching clients have identified.

  • How can I fully step into the person I’ve been practising to become?
  • In how many ways can I celebrate and savour all that is great in my life?
  • What’s possible for me over the next five years?

You will know when you strike on what I label a powerful question because you will feel it. The question will intrigue you. It will ignite your imagination with a sense of possibility.

There will be a jolt of energy, a sense of excitement even liberation, and an eagerness to get the sleeves rolled up and to explore ways of answering it. As one client poetically said: It’s like I’ve found a hidden door and I’m eager to discover what’s behind it. I call this the bullseye moment.

Rather than just throwing ideas around, you’ve identified the target. Because the brain is a question and answer mechanism the minute you pose an engaging question your brain will want to answer it. The idea generation that follows will be rich and meaningful.

As the motivational speaker and author Tony Robbins says: The quality of your life is a direct reflection of the quality of the questions you are asking yourself’. It’s true for business strategy too.

At a job interview or sitting an exam, we are rated for how well we answer questions that somebody else poses. With this approach to strategic thinking we get to set our own questions. New ideas, new answers and new solutions follow when we ask new questions. As I often say: The question is the answer

Author: James Sweetman is a motivational speaker and executive coach focusing on leadership, presentation skills and personal development. He is also the author of five books. More information is available at www.jamessweetman.com