Reach for the stars, one strategic decision at a time

Strategic thinking has been around for a long time, and it is an important aspect of the world of business. One of the earliest known discourses about political, economic and military strategy is the Arthashastra by Chanakya from as far back as the second century BCE. It’s amazing that many of the concepts developed so long ago are still relevant and can be applied today. If your day at work is like mine, you are probably involved in decision-making at multiple levels of complexity. Strategic thinking can make the decision-making process easier. Strategic thinking in a corporate environment, at a basic level, involves creating a business plan that enables us to reach our goals – even if we’re aiming for the stars – considering all relevant factors that may impact progress.

There is plenty to be learnt from the military strategists of yesteryears and the successful business leaders of today, on challenging the status quo by thinking strategically. The word “strategy” has its roots in military and war-related planning, it is derived from the Greek word “strategos” which means “general”, that is, one who commands an army. Just as a general preparing for a battle prepares a plan of action that considers several possible eventualities, our plan should include the approach to tackling various scenarios we may encounter, thus giving us a higher probability of success.

Set an aspirational goal

As a first step in the process of strategic thinking, we should set a goal, often aspirational, that we wish to work towards based on a long-term vision of the future. Strategic thinking is different from tactical thinking, and it is crucial not to fall into the trap of concentrating only on the here and now. When the end goal is clearly defined, it will enable us to ensure that all efforts made are aligned with reaching that goal. This will keep us a step ahead of the competition.

Walmart has shown us how it’s done. They set an aspirational goal of offering the lowest prices anytime, anywhere. In the extremely competitive retail market, they created a niche for themselves by following a strategic combination of low prices and high levels of customer service, while keeping their net profits relatively low. They were able to build a loyal customer base that trusted them to offer the best possible prices with an excellent customer experience.

Build a plan of action

The next step is to create an action plan. All the actions in the multiple steps of the plan should align with the overarching goal. We have a plethora of tactics at our disposal that we can adopt, especially with the huge strides that are being made by technology. We will need to pay close attention to all the details and keep every step of our plan of action aligned with our goal. This will enable us to continue to go from strength to strength in the right direction, and ultimately achieve our goals.

In many ways, Sun Tzu’s wisdom from "The Art of War" works just as well in a corporate scenario as it did in its original context, and this was proved by Steve Jobs when he refused to join a pricing war with the competition. When smartphones started becoming popular, Apple had the technology ready to compete. However, Steve Jobs strategically created a plan of action that meant they continued to work on improving the technology. Jobs made certain that Apple devices put the consumer first, while keeping them simple yet sophisticated thus gaining a loyal customer base over time.

Be prepared to face challenges head-on

Life rarely works the way you expect. There are invariably multiple factors, many of which you cannot control, that affect outcomes despite your best efforts. It’s much the same in business. A key part of strategic thinking involves anticipating possible challenges and being prepared with appropriate responses that can address them. We now also have access to technology that can assist us in making sense of the vast quantities of available relevant data. This can give us an edge that enhances our ability to identify potential issues and also make better-informed decisions. Strategic decision-making has been responsible for altering the course of many a company.

Starbucks is an example of a company that faced unforeseen challenges head-on. They used strategic thinking to recover from a massive blip they had some years back. They had tried to diversify at the time as they ventured into the entertainment industry, thus decreasing their focus on the “coffee” side of their business. When sales dropped and their share prices plummeted, the leadership fell back on the tenets of strategic thinking. They then realigned with their original strategy, and invested time and effort in retraining their staff on their renewed focus on “coffee”, bringing back their customers.

The positive impact of strategic thinking is obvious for everyone to see. Walmart, Apple and Starbucks are a few examples of companies that used strategic thinking successfully to achieve their goals. You cannot deny it, strategic thinking can work wonders. You too can capitalise on the benefits of strategic thinking with informed decision-making that propels you towards your goals. I wish more power to you as you make wise choices just like Chanakya, to reap the rewards of strategic thinking and reach for the stars.

This article was first published on Fortune India

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