As someone who leads a group of strategists, I think a lot about how I can help my team hone their skills. One of my jobs as a leader is to make myself unnecessary. I want my team to be competent enough and confident enough that if I'm not around they don't really notice. I want them to feel like they're ready to tackle any problem they face with the skills and knowledge that I (hopefully) have helped them develop.
This leads to a big question: what are the skills they should focus on developing? What are the strategist's core competencies? And how can they get better at them?
Knowledge work takes practice
A lot of the material I read about how to be a good strategist—whether that's your job title or not—is, ironically enough, quite tactical. Books about strategy and strategic thinking offer a lot of frameworks, mental models, or techniques to implement strategy. They have less to say about the kinds of skills and abilities that are required to use those tools effectively.
After all, anyone can fill in the blanks in a template. The challenge is filling the template with the right things.
I think that it's often taken for granted that people in roles where strategic thinking is an asset (and this includes just about every knowledge worker) already know how to do things like perform research, and manage and synthesize information. There's a tacit assumption that these skills are innate, or they just get picked up by osmosis in school.
I'm not sure that's the case. And even if it is, I don't think that means it's impossible to continue to refine those skills.
With that in mind, I've been thinking a lot lately about what are the core competencies that a strategist needs to work on. Where do they need to put in their reps to become better at their jobs? I've been kicking around a few ideas, but one I keep coming back to is intuition.
Intuition is the strategist’s core competency
In his book Creative Strategy Generation, Bob Caporale argues that intuition is the strategist's most important skill. For Caporale, intuition is the ability to see the future more accurately than anyone else. It's intuition, he says, that produces the surprising, game-changing insight that is the hallmark of innovative strategy work—the kind that helps your brand or organization differentiate itself, rather than getting caught up among the other also-rans.
We're often suspicious of intuition, and rightly so. Intuition can be impulsive. The first idea to jump into our heads is rarely the best one. We must be careful that what we think is a conscious decision isn't simply the brain working through a heuristic, and the decision the result of a cognitive bias. Simply being aware of these biases won't help us avoid them; our brains are fundamentally biased against themselves. They're very good at concealing from us those moments in which we jumped to a conclusion based on incomplete information.
So, we need to do two things. First of all, we need to ensure that whatever intuition we have is based on high-quality information. Then, we need to push back against our intuitive thought and stress test the ideas to make sure that they're actually worthwhile.
How to have better hunches
Intuition often manifests itself as a gut feeling—a hunch, or almost a sixth sense about something. These feelings are powerful: a hunch is the seed of an idea. If we're able to nurture that seed, it will grow, evolve, and mutate, eventually branching out and making connections with other ideas or insights we've had. When the right connection comes along, that hunch can be catalyzed into an idea.
But to be able to intuit good ideas, we need to first consume good ideas. As Daniel Kahnemann argues, we can hone our intuition through the acquisition of and mastery of knowledge. No idea comes from nowhere; they are built from the The more information we have at our fingertips, the more receptive we are to flashes of insight. Knowledge accrues compounding returns. Each idea creates multiple connections with other ideas, as our constellations of thought grow exponentially vast and complex.
Our consumption should be broad: if we focus narrowly on a specific area of expertise, we can give ourselves tunnel vision and miss important signals from adjacent spaces. By seeing connections in unexpected places, we increase the odds that our insight will be unique and powerful. A good strategist needs to be able to look at old things in new ways; consuming ideas from diverse sources can help us find new vantage points. Self-styled near-futurist Rohit Bhargava makes a point of reading magazines published for audiences or demographics that are completely remote to his experience; doing so, he argues, helps him spot trends and patterns that otherwise would have been blindspots.
Not only that, we need to be able to process that information. According to Hubert Dreyfus, simply acquiring and memorizing facts is only the first step toward learning something. As our skill grows, we move beyond memorized rules and become better at recognizing patterns in the data we have. From there, we grow to become more skilled at filtering the good information from the noise, before building a strong sense of how the information connects together holistically, rather than as a set of discrete facts. Finally, with true expertise, we're able to leverage that accumulated information and experience to intuit a decision without necessarily needing to consciously analyze the situation.
This isn’t something that happens by accident. It takes effort and time.
Writing is thinking
Possibly the most effective way to move from simply collecting facts to building knowledge is through writing. Writing is thinking. As a strategist, or as any knowledge worker, the most valuable thing that you can offer is your perspective. Writing about the information you consume will help you uncover and refine your perspective. It will force you to articulate and confront your own ideas, providing an instant feedback loop.
If you take the next step and share those ideas with an audience and learn from their feedback, so much the better. They will have questions that you couldn’t have anticipated, and reveal new angles that you would not have seen yourself. As well, they’ll force you to get outside of your own head: ideas that may be obvious to you may need further clarification when considered from another perspective.
It's true: there are people whose intuition is uncannily accurate. But, we should never take intuition prima facie. Instead, we should treat it as provisional. Knowledge is never complete. We should therefore strive next to disprove our own intuition. Look for disconfirming evidence, not validation.
Intuition is a skill
Intuition is a valuable skill that can, in fact, be honed and developed through deliberate practice. That means cultivating conditions in which our intuition can flourish. To do so, consume information and put it into conversation with other ideas. Work with your data: really think through the ideas that you are having, and look for connections—the more unexpected the better. Strive to articulate your hunch as clearly as possible. And then, test it. Create feedback loops that will pressure test your idea, and learn from the result.