Strategic leadership thinking is not just what you think about but how you think. And there is a wide range of strategic thinking skills, frameworks and tools that leaders can use. First, leaders must let go of this belief that they must withdraw from the day-to-day order to think more strategically. While retreat for individual leaders and leadership teams is important, leaders must also learn to think creatively and strategically in the moment given today’s accelerated work environment. I coach my clients to understand that you can think critically and stay engaged at the same time. “Second-order thinking” is a crucial skill that allows leaders to do this effectively.
First vs Second Order Thinking
First-order thinking involves our immediate response to solving a problem and often focuses on short-term solutions. This approach is faster and involves minimal complexity. However first-order thinking also can fail to play out scenarios, risks and the impact of their decisions on different areas of the business.
Second-order thinking involves thinking through the consequences of different decisions and scenarios. This type of problem-solving embraces complexity and can lead to more creative solutions. It also requires an openness to new ideas, curiosity and flexibility that some leaders have difficulty with, especially under stress. A pitfall of second-order thinking is that it can make leaders consider so many scenarios that it paralyzes them from action. Leaders often operate at these extremes: either not engaging in second-order thinking at all and making poor decisions or over-thinking to a point of non-action.
Second-order thinking can be practiced daily and can be incredibly energizing when done correctly. Here are five questions to ask yourself to promote healthy, second-order thinking:
- What is the potential downside of this decision and its effect later?
- By making a quick decision what biases may you be unintentionally confirming?
- What areas of the business will this positively or negatively impact and how?
- What decision will have the greatest positive compounding effect in the future?
- How can I embrace the complexity of this decision-making process?