How Do You Develop Strategic Thinking?

It always amazes me that Wayne Rooney is an actual football manager. And not a bad one, at that. I had always associated Wayne Rooney with being a precocious 17-year-old who would run headlong at defenders, not as a sharp-witted strategic thinker who is determined to learn his craft and improve as a manager.

And yet, there he is. A highly strategic football manager who studies the game and develops strategies that 20 years ago, he could barely have imagined.

It doesn’t take much of a leap to bring this into our professional world. You enter the workforce raw and tactical, along the way learning the skills that will help you develop a strategic mindset, learning to predict what comes next and how things will pan out as you make decisions.

Developing a Helicopter View

Let’s take this as literally as possible. Wayne Rooney, when he became manager of Derby County, started using drones to get a helicopter view of his team in training sessions. God forbid any of the players hack a clearance so badly it takes out a drone.

He was quite literally using a strategic thinking methodology. As a player, he would have been ‘in the weeds’, moving with the ebb and flow of a game, but as a manager he needs to see how the team moves in possession, out of possession, when they lose the ball, when they win the ball – in other words, he needs a helicopter view of what his team looks like in all situations.

Loizos Heracleous once said: “It all comes down to the ability to go up and down the ladder of abstraction, and being able to see the big picture and the operational implications, which are signs of outstanding leaders and strategists.”

It is key to strategic thinking that managers are able to stand back and see the whole picture AS WELL AS being able to come back down to see how things are implemented in the real world. The best way to analyse a problem that you have identified on the ground is to see how it fits into the bigger picture, and how it is part of a whole.

Trust Your Team

When Wayne Rooney arrived at Derby, they were in dire financial straits. They could not operate in the transfer market, so had to rely on their youth team, many of whom lacked the necessary experience to survive in the competitive Championship.

But the combination of a helicopter view and trust in his team meant that Derby County very nearly survived that difficult season with a team that, despite its young average age, performed beyond their individual abilities.

Those managers who micro-manage are very rarely able to take a helicopter view and are those who tend to get ‘stuck in the weeds’, seeing very little of the full picture. Having a team that feels empowered and is given autonomy, and more importantly, a framework (tactics, instructions, KPI’s) is key to strategic thinking.

Decide and Delegate

Two skills that leaders require above all are the ability to make decisions and the ability to delegate. Both as a team member and as a manager, Wayne Rooney could never take responsibility for everything. Surrounding yourself with a good team to whom you can delegate important actions is absolutely key, but so is retaining the ability to make the difficult decisions yourself.

Strategic thinkers develop their decision-making skills by constantly analysing the impact of their decisions using a helicopter view. But they also learn to save time for strategic thinking by delegating as much that is operational as possible.

So, the example of Wayne Rooney is a little left-field, no pun intended, but perhaps an apt one for people trying to become strategic thinkers throughout their careers. Moving from a tactical viewpoint to a strategic one is never an overnight process, but those who practice standing back and taking a helicopter view will gain a wider understanding of the impact of their decisions and how they have delegated tasks to their team, and will help you become a more strategic thinker.

Our MBA Strategic Thinking for Pharma and Biopharma Professionals course is running this coming January over two days, and helps people in these industries learn how to behave strategically, how to evaluate and apply their plans. It’s a fascinating course delivered by Dr Laura Brown MBA, and you can sign up here.

Published on Dec 01, 2022 by Gareth Cartman