Strategic Thinking: A Six-step, Six-hat Template for Success in Reaching Goals

Strategic Thinking: A Six-step, Six-hat Template for Success in Reaching Goals
October 9, 2023 Susan Diepen

Strategic Thinking: A Six-step, Six-hat Template for Success in Reaching Goals (It’s easier than you think!)

Kelly McCutcheon

Kelly McCutcheon

Group Director of Training, Whataburger
CHART Board Member


Do you think strategic thinking skills are difficult to acquire? Do you believe only the C-suite needs a strategic mindset? I am on a mission to BUST these MYTHS! The TRUTH is that anyone can (and should) become a Strategic Partner in their field!

Traits of Strategic Thinkers

So, what is strategic thinking? Google will give you thousands of definitions, but let’s keep it simple. It’s just an ability to plan for the future. (Even that could be consolidated to “an ability to plan,” but I think there is clarity and value in the word “future” here.)

According to a study conducted by the Management Research Group (MRG), 97% of leaders identified strategic thinking as a key to their organization’s success. However, in another study by the same group, 96% of leaders said they don’t have time to do it. I feel this! We are often so busy “working” (i.e. answering emails) that we don’t actually have time to come up with the plan.

Want to know how to carve out the time necessary for strategic thinking? Read Patrick Yearout’s companion article Time Well Spent: Reallocating Your Work Calendar for Strategic Thinking.”

So, we have to ask ourselves: Am I working ON the business or IN the business? Am I working on business or busyness? Are you prioritizing the important versus the urgent?

Of course, we have to fight fires when a problem surfaces, but if all we are doing is firefighting, it’s like we’re handing matches to those around us and encouraging them to start fires! To make a true impact, we need to be the people finding the long-term solutions and opportunities. Working on strategy gives us a moment to really stop and think.

Let’s take a look at the big picture of strategic thinking. Strategy is only part of coming up with a plan.

To arrive at strategy, you need to start with a goal. What mountain are you going to climb? You need the why, the how, and the what. We start with the why, but then we typically jump right from the why to the what, missing the crucial strategy step in the middle. As trainers, we often get a request like: “I need a 90-second video.” or “I need a one-sheet overview.” We forget the strategy bridge: “Is that tactic helping to achieve this goal?”

In strategic thinking, it is essential to first align with our goal. We often don’t spend enough time agreeing, settling, and deciding which mountain we are going to climb. Are you currently working on a priority today that wasn’t a priority two weeks or two months ago? That’s a result of strategy misalignment – not aligning on the true goal first. We can only climb one mountain at a time.

Let’s get in to the 6(ish) steps it takes to craft strategy.

I say 6(ish) because setting up the right strategy takes a little homework. So, we need to start at Step Zero: The Prework. We must consider four areas of the business to make sure our projects see the light of day. Brainstorm the following:

  • Culture Anchor to what’s happening in your purpose and your people. This does not have to be holistic, sometimes a single word or phrase from your culture can be your guiding light.
  • Business Objectives What is the business trying to accomplish? You will want your strategy to support or align.
  • Upcoming Events – What else is going on in the coming months? What are the hot topics? What is the workload of those impacted? How can you hitch your wagon to these ideas?
  • Metrics What do you want to impact? Turnover? Efficiency? Fun? Use your dashboards and talk to your operators to help point your strategy in the right direction.

Once you’ve brainstormed these topics (I use a single sheet of paper folded into quarters), look over them and spend some time thinking. Often, a goal will pop out from the data you’ve collected and you are on your way to crafting your strategy.

Step 1: Setting THE REAL Goal

(Inspired by Pam Didner’s How to Cultivate Strategic Thinking Skills in 6 Steps)

Once you’ve analyzed your data and environment, you need to craft a goal. What do you want to achieve?

I will give a personal example of how this works. Let’s say I want to save $15,000 in two years. Right away, there is a problem with this goal. It is not connected to a purpose. So, you need to set THE REAL goal, by including your “why.” By changing this goal to “I want to have $15,000 as a down payment for my first house,” we now have many options that might not have been thought of before.

Recognize that in business, most goals can take three to six months to implement. Once we have our goal, we need to step back and look at the big picture of how we get there.

Step 2: Identify Options

Having a clear goal is vital, because it guides your thinking process as you brainstorm different ways you can achieve your goal.

So, how can I achieve my goal: $15,000 as a down payment for my first house? Well, I could:

  • Save $625 a month
  • Get a second job as a Lyft driver
  • Get a roommate and charge rent
  • Buy grandma’s house…

…waitaminute! Grandma’s house? That’s not saving $15,000 a month. That’s right! But by tying to my overall goal to buy my first house, suddenly grandma’s house becomes an option here.

What often happens now, is that we try to implement all of these possibilities! This is simply not possible and the reason so many plans fail from the start. Think about how many times in business you’ve tried to tackle every possibility to move the needle. But none of the efforts make as big of an impact as deciding on one or two and going ALL IN!

In business, it can be difficult to make big decisions like this, especially on a team. But big decisions warrant the time to go through a process. Here is a technique called the Six Thinking Hats from Edward De Bono. One at a time, you metaphorically put on a different hat to look at the situation through a unique lens. In a smaller team setting, everyone puts on the same hat at the same time. In a larger team setting, you can break people into groups and come back to present. The ideas should free flow in a clear, conflict-free way.

Six Thinking Hats

Step 3: Analyze Options

Now that you have brainstormed options, you need to put your thinking hats to work. Think of this through action, results, and risk. If I am going to save $625 a month, for example, maybe I can’t take vacation or can only eat out once a month. Maybe there will be the risk of unexpected circumstances and all my savings is gone in one go. If I get a second job as a Lyft driver, what will happen if my car breaks down?

Step 4: Decide

Now we must DECIDE. The analysis from Step 3 will naturally guide you to a decision. There is no right or wrong decision when you make it, but you must DECIDE. In the case of saving money, let’s say I have decided to get both a second job and a roommate which will result in earning the extra cash I need to save.

Step 5: The Plan

As Thomas Edison said, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” So far, you just have the vision. Now, you need to implement THE PLAN.

Note that in business, we need to make the pitch to our boss before we dive into this step. If you don’t have the buy-in and alignment, don’t do the work of coming up with a detailed tactical game plan.

When it’s time, and you’re aligned, make your plan. This is just a list of all the specific things you (or others) need to do to execute the options. In the example, deciding to get a second job mean I have to:

  • Complete my Lyft training
  • Detail clean my car (and maybe invest in some air freshener)
  • Verify my license details are up to date
  • Purchase a car charger for my phone
  • ETC…

You’ve done it! You have a clear, thoughtful, and actionable STRATEGY! Congratulations. Now, everything will go EXACTLY according to plan, right?

Step 6: Embrace the Unknowns

We know by now that nothing goes 100% according to plan. So, here’s where Step 6 carries you through. As you are implementing the plan, you must embrace the unknown. Often we experience a little setback, and scrap the entire goal. Remember, there are a lot of ways to climb up that mountain, but the top of THAT mountain is where you want to end up. Keep your eye on the goal, and adjust your plan as needed.

Simply put, you need to plan the work and then work the plan. As Dolly Parton says, “We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.”