Lifelong learning, the sixth key ability that is crucial to great strategic thinking, is constant.
The learning we are talking about here is not limited to your area of expertise or your line of business. Conversely, it extends to learning about anything that may enhance your understanding of the world and how it works.
First, lifelong learning is pretty closely tied to strategic awareness.
One of the key attributes we mentioned in people with good strategic awareness is consuming lots of information. Learning is more than just consuming information, though. Good learning involves taking the time to connect what you learn to what you already know and applying it.
Second, there are types of learning that are more likely to contribute to good strategic thinking.
Forget about rote memorization and figures. You need to learn about how things work and how they connect to each other. For example, if you know average prices for corn and wheat, that’s interesting if you’re in agriculture. However, understanding the connection between weather patterns, grain prices and economic change can lead you to powerful strategic thinking. In the first example, corn prices are a fact. In the second example, you completely understand the systemic connections in the real world and their implications.
Third, to foster good strategic thinking, consider learning anything that might illuminate your understanding of the world around you.
Sometimes, you can extend simple historical facts into strategic hypotheses. As a simple example, Levi Strauss built a clothing empire beginning with one simple factor. That factor was people rushing to look for gold in California in 1849. Those people brought many things with them, but they wore through normal clothing quickly. The underlying idea was that the gold rush made Levi Strauss successful because he provided a tool for the hopeful. You can break that idea down into several interesting ideas. For example, most people going to California expected to get rich by finding gold. Strauss succeeded by providing a tool that people needed. You might argue that people selling picks and shovels should have been similarly successful. Strauss, however, provided a tool that few anticipated needing. Furthermore, this tool wore out with use (even if Levis were more durable than normal clothing).
If you’d like to learn more about that particular success story, you probably are a strategic lifelong learner.
Strategic thinkers like to know what happened – but they are more interested in understanding why things happened the way they did.
Here are a few tips to extend your strategic thinking through lifelong learning.
1. Read non-fiction.
This is irreplaceable. I particularly recommend history, military history, alternative history, historical novels, current events, and politics. Think about how things could have been different and whether the ways they could or could have been different are strategic changes or tactical changes. Clearly, great thinking comes from learning why the world is as it is and how it might have been different. For example, how could the confederates have won at Gettysburg, was it strategic or tactical, and what difference would it have made?
2. Go deep in some areas that are far outside your daily work and responsibilities.
If you want to expand your strategic thinking, you might study how invasive plant species spread, learn how to do stand-up comedy, or read about how the Spaniards managed to quickly conquer South America. None of these things is likely to lead directly to strategic insights, but I have seen all three lead to insights indirectly.
3. Spend time around people who enjoy discussing these things.
When we learn, we can form flimsy theories about what we have learned unless we test our ideas. Discussing what you are learning can help test your new understanding and explore the possibilities of the new information you have at your disposal.
Finally, broad learning exposes you to different ways to think about things.
Since strategic thinking is different than the thinking you use in your daily work, it pays to develop it.
Has your learning helped your strategic thinking in your business?
I’d love to hear any stories of things that have led to great successes for you. And – of course – if you’d like assistance developing these skills, please reach out to me for workshops, coaching and consulting assistance. If you’d like to learn more about lifelong learning and more specifically how to develop strategic awareness, Simplified Strategic Planning is a great place to start. For great ideas on how to improve the quality of your planning, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Consider holding a one-day workshop on Simplified Strategic Planning.
Dana Baldwin is Senior Strategist with the Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.