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The Power of Thought: Unraveling Strategic, Structured, and Critical Thinking for Success

Updated: Apr 4

A team is together to brainstorm the best way forward. It helps draft a solution step by step

Structured Thinking, Critical Thinking, and Strategic Thinking: you've probably heard or read these words in meetings with executive leadership, job descriptions, feedback from your manager, and articles on thinking and problem-solving techniques. They're everywhere. But what do they really mean, and how are they different from each other? Let us delve into the nuances and disparities among these thinking styles and provide practical guidance on how these can be applied in real-life scenarios. Let’s dive in and keep it simple.

Structured Thinking

Imagine you want to build a two-story house with toy blocks. Structured thinking is like sorting toy blocks so it becomes easier to build the toy house. When you have a big pile of them, it can be overwhelming. But if you start organizing them into groups—putting all the reds together and all the yellows together—and then by different sizes, it becomes easier to understand, plan, and build what you want. Structured thinking is a way of organizing your thoughts and ideas so that they make sense to you. It helps you break down big problems into smaller parts and see how they fit together. Just like sorting your toy blocks, structured thinking helps you build one step at a time with clarity on what needs to happen next.

Structured Thinking helps you break down problems into small and manageable parts.

Let’s put Structured Thinking to work in a real-life example.

Clark is a Product Manager working for a company whose business model is based on paid online courses. His company generates revenue when individuals buy online courses. Recently, he’s observed a drastic decline in engagement with leadership courses. He wants to investigate and solve this problem.

Clark knows that this problem is not new and frequently happens across the website. Can he just say that ‘uncontrollable external conditions’ are causing this and move on? Nope. Clark is a problem solver and wants to use this opportunity to proactively find the root cause and prescribe a solution.

Clark creates a step-by-step guide:

  1. Identify the problem: The engagement rate metric has dropped 25% compared to last month.

  2. Gather information: Look at reports, analyze user behavior, and collate all the information he can.

  3. Break down the problem into smaller components: Divide the areas he will investigate one by one. Was there a 25% drop last year too? Is it only affecting the leadership courses? Was the website down? Were the links not functional? Did the overall traffic drop as well?

  4. Investigate each component: Find answers to all the questions he noted down earlier.

  5. Identify patterns: Look for patterns or connections between the analyzed components.

  6. Formulate hypotheses: Generate theories that can serve as starting points for further investigation and experimentation.

  7. Prioritize: Rank the hypotheses on his preference

  8. Develop an action plan: Create a detailed plan for testing each theory. Test and evaluate: Conclude the root cause based on the results.

Phew! That was quite a bit. A lot of steps? You bet. But Clark hadn't done this before. He spent a lot of time thinking it through, probably taking five days to reach this point. He ended up building this framework, which will be super useful not only for investigating this specific issue but also for any changes in metrics across his company. Clark will also refine this over time.

Irrespective of your role in a company, If you’ve ever been asked to investigate a change in key business performance metrics, I'm sure you can relate. I fully hope that this approach isn't new to you, as we've been practicing structured thinking for years now. Just not applying it to its potential.

Critical thinking

Imagine you have a puzzle with missing pieces. Critical thinking is about closely examining the puzzle and asking questions like: Where could the missing pieces be? What do the other pieces tell me? Is there a clue or pattern that can help me solve it? When you watch a magic trick, critical thinking helps you ask: How did the magician do that? What's the secret behind the trick? In everyday life, critical thinking means not simply believing everything you hear or see. It involves asking questions, lots of them. For example, if someone tells you a story, critical thinking helps you consider whether it makes sense or if there's more to the story. So, critical thinking is like being a curious detective who asks questions, thinks carefully, and tries to figure things out. It helps you understand events and situations better and make smart decisions. Remember, critical thinking doesn't stop at asking questions but also involves finding answers. Don’t stop at curiosity, it’s important what you learn and apply from the answers you get.

By not taking anything on the face value and remaining curious about everything helps you hone your critical thinking skills

Let’s use Critical Thinking in the same example with our friend Clark the Product Manager.

  1. Question assumptions: If Clark is investigating alone, he should question his own assumptions. But if he is collaborating with others, probing is just as important. For example, he might question whether the problem is solely due to external conditions or if there are internal factors contributing to it.

  2. Identify biases: Is he biased towards concluding that the issue is only due to website performance and recent releases? Why not look at content-related issues too?

  3. Assess the validity and reliability of information: Is the data he is consuming from reliable sources? Is it accurate and dependable?

  4. Challenge conclusions: Clark must not rush to conclusions and should think through whether he might be missing another angle.

  5. Seek different perspectives: Involve others, such as engineers, user surveys, and experienced product veterans who might have encountered this issue before.

  6. Evaluate implications: While prioritizing hypotheses and developing an action plan, Clark can critically evaluate the potential implications of each solution. He can consider the short-term and long-term consequences, potential risks, and unintended effects to make informed decisions.

  7. Reflect and learn: Critical thinking involves continuous reflection and learning. After implementing solutions and evaluating the results, Clark can critically analyze the outcomes and learn from both successes and failures. This reflection can guide future decision-making and improvements.

Now we've learned that structured thinking is more about building a step-by-step guide to break problems into smaller parts, whereas critical thinking is about acquiring knowledge about each step. I usually call it business acumen. It’s about your expertise in a supposed area of expertise. You could be a high performer in Marketing, but if you can't explain why your lead funnel behaves the way it does, you lack a comprehensive understanding and wouldn’t be considered a subject matter expert. Practicing critical thinking will help you cover this gap.

Strategic Thinking

This method involves looking at and planning for the bigger picture. It's about thinking about the end state and building a roadmap to accomplish your long-term goal. Strategic thinking is about planning ahead and making smart choices. It's like being a clever captain on a ship. You think about where you want to go, how to get there, and what to do along the way to be successful.

Strategic thinking helps you look at the big picture from a zoomed out view. You have a clear view of the end objective.

Let’s read about how Clark can leverage strategic thinking in the same situation. The main differentiation is that Clark would look beyond the specific problem of a drop in website engagement rate for leadership courses. Here's how he will approach it

  1. Long-term perspective: Strategic thinking encourages Clark to consider the long-term goals of the company. He needs to think beyond the immediate problem and understand how addressing the decline in engagement with leadership courses aligns with the overall business objectives.

  2. Environmental analysis: Strategic thinking prompts Clark to analyze the external environment and identify any trends or factors that may impact engagement with the courses. For example, he might consider changes in the competitive landscape or read up on emerging trends in customer preferences to determine if the content his company offers is becoming irrelevant or too expensive.

  3. Goal alignment: Strategic thinking helps Clark align his actions with the larger organizational goals. He needs to evaluate how resolving the decline in engagement with leadership courses contributes to the company's mission, vision, and strategic priorities.

  4. Resource allocation: Clark needs to strategically allocate resources, such as time, budget, and personnel, to address the issue effectively. He must prioritize the investigation and solution implementation based on their potential impact and feasibility.

  5. Innovation and adaptability: Strategic thinking encourages Clark to think creatively and seek innovative solutions. He can explore new approaches to enhance the leadership courses, introduce new features or content, or find unique ways to engage users and increase their participation.

  6. Risk assessment: Strategic thinking requires Clark to assess the potential risks and uncertainties associated with different solutions. He must consider the trade-offs and potential consequences of his decisions and identify ways to mitigate risks.

  7. Monitoring and evaluation: Strategic thinking emphasizes the importance of continuous monitoring and evaluation. Clark needs to track the impact of the implemented solutions, measure engagement metrics, and make adjustments based on feedback and results.

While there are overlapping elements among these thinking approaches, each one has its distinct characteristics and applications. Strategic thinking emphasizes long-term goals and decision-making aligned with broader strategies. Structured thinking focuses on organizing and executing tasks or problem-solving steps efficiently. Critical thinking emphasizes objective analysis, evaluation, and rational decision-making by questioning assumptions and biases.

In terms of frequency, there is an ongoing need for you to practice critical thinking as there are several situations throughout the day that could benefit from it. Strategic thinking is employed when working on a strategy, which typically occurs a few times a year or less. On the other hand, structured thinking can be applied to all areas of your life and usually requires a one-time investment of time. Once you have built your framework to approach a problem, you only need to refine it over time.

By the way, if you can relate to how Clark thinks and have covered all the angles I covered, I bow down to you in respect! You are a treasure, and I hope you are treasured at work. This combination is powerful to have in your skills toolkit and vital for career growth.

I appreciate your engagement with the article. Now, I don't have any confetti cannons or balloons to celebrate, but I do have a sincere request. I'd be over the moon if you could take a moment to comment to share your thoughts on these thinking styles. Your experience, wit, and wisdom would be greatly appreciated. You could also reach me here.

Finally, if you found this article to be a valuable read, I would be immensely grateful if you could help me spread the word.

Thanks a million!

Anirudh Kuthiala, Framework Garage


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Jul 27, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

An enlightening journey into thinking techniques!


Jul 26, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Informative for the beginners, in the layman language.


Sithara V S
Sithara V S
Jun 29, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

This article lays foundation to analytical thinking and guides us on how to take the right approach towards problem solving.

Thanks a lot for helping us understand in layman terms!

Anirudh Kuthiala
Anirudh Kuthiala
Jul 07, 2023
Replying to

Thanks for your engagement, Sithara.


Aleksandra Czepierga
Aleksandra Czepierga
Jun 28, 2023

I can assume of bigger projects requires different types of thinking at different stages but the structured thinking should be always a base. But thinking is one. Can you suggest any tools that could help documenting and/or visualizing thoughts?

Anirudh Kuthiala
Anirudh Kuthiala
Jun 28, 2023
Replying to

Figma and Miro have enabled me to create a mind map and a flowchart for free. It helps me break down my thinking and visualize it but at the same time, I use it to articulate my thought process to a second person or a group.

Thanks for your engagement and feedback, Aleksandra!

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