• Estimated read time: 8 mins
  • Date posted:02/01/2019
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Soft skills – personal attributes, personality traits and communication techniques – are highly sought in the workplace. They characterise how you go about your duties and interact with peers. For executives leading their team and organisation to success, soft skills are mission-critical.

Soft skills can’t be taught on a course. They are honed through every-day interactions and experience in your personal and professional lives. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn soft skills; it just takes a little self-reflection and a commitment to venture outside your comfort zone.

One of the most important soft skills life science leaders can master is strategic thinking – an ongoing, evolving process that defines the manner in which you arrive at conclusions and make decisions. It is the ability to think outside the box, envisaging new solutions to age-old problems. It can allow you to see opportunities that others miss. In a turbulent, competitive market, strategic thinking can give you an edge over the opposition.

In this insight, we explore how to master strategic thinking skills and apply them to your business.

The importance of strategic thinking skills

Adopting a strategic mindset is essential for life sciences executives tasked with increasing profits, delighting customers and retaining talent. To remain competitive, life science organisations must chart a course in a business environment that is in a constant state of flux, and be prepared to change direction at a moments notice. In addition to the marketplace, companies must be ready to respond to changes in:

  • Technology
  • Economy
  • Consumer behaviour

Strategic thinking, done right, encompasses ideation, strategic planning and operational planning to help you arrive at the most effective course of action for your given situation. It accounts for the “what”, “why”, “how” and “when”. In short, strategic thinking increases your odds of success. 

The Benefits of strategic thinking in leadership

Aside from keeping your company on an even keel, mastering the art of  strategic thinking maximises your efficiency and strengths as a business leader. It helps you think logically and take the most direct route towards achieving your objective. Below are three additional benefits that result when strategic thinking guides and informs the decisions of you and your team:

  1. Open-minded approach. People often approach a problem with a preconceived solution in mind. This is usually because this approach worked in similar situations in the past. The life sciences sector is in a constant state of flux, thanks in part to technological and regulatory change as well as inroads in research. What worked historically does not guarantee success today.
  2. Constantly Question. When you think strategically, nothing is taken for granted. The life sciences are characterised by constant change; companies whose leaders have a rigid way of responding to new situations will have trouble staying relevant. Seeing beyond the horizon and embracing change maximises your chance of you and your organisation staying relevant.
  3. Comprehension. Strategic thinking requires you to view a problem or situation from multiple perspectives, with the goal of taking the most logical approach that delivers the greatest outcome. The result is a deeper understanding of the problem, one which allows you to evaluate different solutions and the pros and cons of implementing each.

When you step outside of traditional ways of thinking and problem solving, the result could be rewards that were unattainable due to more limited way of doing things in the past. Examples include an innovative new research style that yields superior results or a new product that turns out to be a breakaway hit with customers. Henry David Thoreau once stated, “It is not enough to be busy… the question is: what are we busy about?” When you think strategically, you challenge assumptions and focus on sourcing and developing opportunities to create value for the business.

The strategic thinking process

As touched upon earlier, strategic thinking encompasses ideation, strategic planning and operational planning to arrive at decisions and strategies that have a greater chance of success.

Step 1: Ideation

Ideas are the lifeblood of strategic thinking. Everything we see, touch, taste, hear and smell stems from ideas. Ideation is the process of brainstorming ideas, perusing those that have the greatest potential impact on the business. We talk about potential impact because we won’t know for certain whether they deliver their intended benefit until you apply them in the real world.

You can arrive at ideas with the greatest potential impact on your business by rating each idea with PIES: PIES stands for Potential (how much improvement can be delivered), Importance (how  valuable is the outcome to your business), Ease (how difficult is it to implement). The S stands for score. Rate your ideas out of ten for each criteria, and you have arrived at your PIES score.

The higher the PIES score, the greater the potential impact. To make an impartial decision, have your coworkers rate each idea with PIES, arriving at an average score for each criteria. Prioritise those ideas with the highest PIES score. While there is no guarantee of success, the rational rigour of PIES means that you have done your due diligence before committing resources.

Step 2: Strategic Planning

Ideas prioritised, it’s time to articulate them into strategies. Here we consider factors, both external and internal, that can influence the success of our ideas. External factors include the economic and political climate, social and technological change. Internal factors include the needs of our customers, the organisation and our employees. There are two frameworks that can help:

PEST analysis is a strategic business tool traditionally used by organizations to evaluate macro-economic factors which can impact the business. It examines opportunities and threats due to Political, Economic, Social and Technological forces. There are several variations of the framework including PESTLE, STEEPLE, STEER and STEEP. Regardless of which framework you choose, performing this type of analysis gives your the lay-of-the-land in terms of what is happening in the external business environment. Armed with this information, you can make informed decisions.

SWAT analysis, in contrast, helps organisations identify their Strengths and Weaknesses, as well as Opportunities and Threats. It helps organisations evaluate the status quo. SWAT and PEST analysis are best deployed in unison, starting with PEST analysis and using the results to inform  your SWAT analysis. For best results, regularly conduct SWAT and PEST Analysis.

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Step 3: Operational Planning

This is where strategies are transformed into action plans that can be implemented. Goals and objectives are set, and the metrics that matter are determined. Goals are outcome statements the define what the organisation is trying to accomplish. Objectives, in contrast, are specific, measurable, actionable and time-bound conditions that must be attained to reach the intended goal. Don’t downplay the significance of the measurable aspect of objectives. By defining the metrics that matter, you can determine the degree to which you are making ground towards achieving your goal

Applying strategic thinking in time-sensitive scenarios

While the above steps help your apply strategic thinking to arrive at informed business decisions and strategy, it is not intended for time-sensitive scenarios where rapid decisions are required. In these circumstances, you will likely have hours, even minutes, to arrive at a decision that could have far-reaching consequences for the organisation. How do you make informed decisions quickly?

You need to focus on solutions, not ideas. Brainstorm as many potential solutions to the problem as you can, then use the PIES framework to prioritise the best. This does not have to be a formal process. Just be sure to weigh up the probability, impact and ease when deciding which solution to pursue. Where possible, involve key stakeholders; have them rate each solution with PIES, too.

If your timeline to reach a decision is measured in hours or minutes, you won’t have time to conduct PEST or SWAT analysis. Instead, go with the PIES framework and continue to operational planning; crafting an action plan to deliver your solution in as short a time-frame possible. However, it is worth noting that, by conducting regular PEST and SWAT analysis, when you come to make business-critical decisions, you will already be armed with the information to help you arrive at an informed decision. Consider conducting PEST and SWAY analysis on a quarterly basis.

How to improve strategic thinking skills

The ability to think strategically is rapidly becoming the deciding factor in who becomes a leader and who remains a follower. The life science industry is so fast-paced that executives, managers, and entrepreneurs have to take a holistic approach to problem-solving and decision making on a day-to-day basis. Here are five ways you can apply strategic thinking: 

  1. Prioritize tasks. Go over your tasks, decide which ones can wait, and brainstorm ideas you can contribute to the success of your organisation. Always action those task that will provide the greatest benefits today, and leave lesser tasks for tomorrow. Ask yourself, “what is the one task I can do today that will leverage the most benefit?”
  2. Be aware of bias. Everyone has biases.  Take charge of your mind by critically examining your thoughts and questioning them. Do you hold them because they are logical or because they’ve served you well in the past? Admitting to some flawed thinking does not diminish your ability to do your job. On the contrary: you are now thinking strategically.
  3. Improve  listening skills. Once you accept that your beliefs may contain flaws and how to overcome them, the next step is to improve your listening skills. Talk to your co-workers, employees and broader network and let their perspectives teach you new ways of thinking. Maintain an open mind, be receptive to feedback, and evaluate everything you hear. 
  4. Hone questioning skills. Strategic thinking requires you to question everything you see or are told. This is not the same as being cynical: you’re collecting and weighing facts, not dismissing ideas or traditions. Ask if an idea is rational, with a credible source and any proof to support its value. Taking time to question something and understand why it is being proposed.
  5. Understand the consequences. All decisions have consequences. After listening to ideas and points of view, carefully consider the potential impact of each one. What are its pros and cons? Which one is most likely to help the organisation meet its goals? This step will help you make an informed decision, and over time, making the strategic choice will come naturally.

Mastering the art of strategic thinking will do more than generate better ideas or improve your decision-making. When you encourage employees to think more critically, you build a framework that makes you a better leader, protects your business from future uncertainties, and gives you an optimal chance of achieving long-term career success.

Are you a strategic thinker?

How can you tell if you are a strategic thinker? The following comparisons of attitudes and scenarios can help you determine your thinking style and identify areas you can improve upon.

Strategic thinkers:
  • Look towards and embrace the future, whatever it may hold.
  • Are willing to work hard today to reap the benefits tomorrow.
  • Don’t limit themselves to the ‘tried and true’ or ‘best practice’.
  • Assign greater importance to ideas with the greatest impact and return.
  • Change their approach to a problem or situation according to circumstances.
  • Are lifelong learners who actively seek knowledge and sharing it with others.
  • Are best described as ‘creative’ individuals who think outside the box.
Non-strategic thinkers:
  • Tend to be reactive: they wait for guidance and rarely present new ideas.
  • Are introspective and take an interest in anything beyond their immediate responsibilities.
  • Prefer the status quo and don’t always take the time to think about long-term goals.
  • Usually approach all tasks the same way, without being affected by urgency or impact.
  • Are hesitant about changing their strategy even when doing so could yield better results.
  • Remain content with their current capabilities and are not motivated to learn more.
  • Are predictable individuals who prefer to follow a set path.

Conclusion

One of the things that life science CEOs and senior executives ask themselves regularly is how they can encourage more strategic thinking across their organisations. It’s not a simple matter of saying to their employees, “I want you to start thinking more strategically.” This directive is not specific enough to get them started in the right direction. As this article has shown, strategic thinking is a mindset, a way of examining different things and linking them in a manner that is both logical and adds value. The steps presented here can turn it into a habit.

The key is to keep an open mind, which allows for creative problem-solving, and get rid of all preconceptions, which can cloud your thinking. You may find value where you least expected it.

 


For more career advice tailored to senior managers and executives in the life science industry…

* Fraser Dove International is a specialist executive search firm operating exclusively in the Life Science industry. Passionate about people, we take pride in helping exceptional life science organisations source the talent they need to design, manufacture and distribute life-changing drugs, treatments and devices which transform and save patient lives.