Change / transformation Management / Strategy

How to think strategically

Note: The following post was written by Dr. Alan Patterson, a BLI thought leader and founder of Mentore, a consulting organization that focuses on aligning leadership, strategy, roles, and skill sets to major shifts in the business.

Patterson will explore these ideas in greater detail during a BLI webcast titled, “The Finance and Accounting Organization as Strategist and Partner to the Business.” The webcast is scheduled from 1 to 2 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 8. Get details and register here.


It is not uncommon today for finance and accounting organizations to position themselves as partners and strategists to the business. That means the ability to think strategically takes center stage.

Let me ask you a question:

How much time do you spend each week thinking, or just flat-out staring at the wall to make sense of what’s going on around you and how this fits into a bigger picture?

If you’re like most, heads-down work today far outweighs thinking about the future. Heck, I’d say half the people I work with would say they don’t have control of their daily schedule, much less time to think about where things are headed. And staring at the wall? No time.

A show of hands: How many of you are told that you need to be more strategic?

That’s right. Get out of the weeds. Operate at a higher level. See the big picture.

Sound familiar? Join the club.

What is strategic thinking?To think strategically means to see the bigger picture.

How big is the big picture?

That depends on where you sit in the organization. It’s more than what you do day-to-day. It’s the direction in which your organization is headed.It asks, “Why?”

  • Why am I doing what I’m doing?
  • What is the rationale – the business reason?
  • What’s the bigger picture?
  • How do I fit in?
All seem like fair questions to me.

Some would argue this is just an opportunity to bust your boss’s chops, to being a smart ass. Well, there’s a bit of truth in that.

Three strategic questions finance and accounting pros must answer There are three critical questions that comprise strategic thinking:

1. What do I see and understand that enables me to get ahead of the day-to-day fury?

Think of this as anticipation.

  • Anticipation shapes the front end of strategic thinking because it puts your mind on alert for what to expect, to factor in next steps (the future) based on an understanding of past situations and current experience.
  • Anticipation requires insight and reflection, stepping back and taking pause from the current state of “things” and what they mean for the future.

2. Where are we headed?

Think extrapolation. (I'm obligated to use one algebra term I remember.)

  • Extrapolation is the process of projecting out from the present situation to a future point beyond known next steps.
  • As a strategic thinking capability, extrapolation can be linear or non-linear.
  • Linear starts with the present and moves to a future point in step-by-step fashion.

For example, going from desktop computers to laptops moved along a linear path, from the present to the future, from larger to smaller.

Non-linear starts with a future point and works its way backwards to the present. It can go in many different directions. Take the first iPhone. Steve Jobs started with a vision of a single device for a phone, camera, and music and worked back to the current state.

Extrapolation asks the question, “What if?” The question is edgy, challenging, sassy, maybe a bit smart-assy. Yet it opens the door to taking risks, thinking creatively, and looking beyond the constraints imposed by the current reality.

Asking “What if?” shakes any degree of certainty created by moving from the known present to the predictable.

No element of strategic thinking is more important than vision.

Vision is a picture of what the future looks like, a future state as many would say. A picture is not simply words and concepts.

To make a profound but not-so-obvious point, a vision is visual, a picture of what things could look like that creates an emotional reaction in people.

Let’s say that we are headed to the Grand Canyon. I can describe the Grand Canyon to you by showing you the entrance sign, or I can show you a picture of the Grand Canyon at sunrise.

Which is more powerful?

Consider this. For people to buy into a vision, they must connect on an emotional level. They need to "see" it.

3. How do I get from here to there?

This is translation.

Strategic thinking starts in the present, projects out to a future state, then considers the steps for how to get there. This translation is necessary because, without it, it’s just business as usual.What’s strikingly different about translation is the

ability to describe the present in the future tense, and the future in the present tense. If this sounds a lot like strategy, it’s because it is.

It’s not business as usual.

Strategic thinking, while it starts in the present, moves to a future point that defines decisions and choices that need to be made, starting now.

  • It accommodates change knowing that nothing is guaranteed.
  • It challenges the status quo by asking the questions of “why” and “what if.”
  • No longer is strategic thinking a nice-to-have.
  • Without it, organizations will come and go.
  • It’s a matter of survival.

So what action will you take today to be more strategic? What low-value, daily activities will you eliminate in order to create time for strategic thinking? We can't create more time in a day, but we can control how we're spending that time.Take the challenge. Be focused and be deliberate in order to start being more strategic!


William D. Sheridan