There are things we know, things we know we don't know and — to paraphrase former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld things we don't know that we don't know. Being strategic often falls into that last category.

The word "strategic" is so commonly used that few of us think twice about it. But how well do we know what it means to be strategic? Could we teach our teams? Give specific examples? Track measurable results?

Here are three ways to be more strategic that can be immediately taught or applied.

It’s like working with the Riddler

Asking different questions is an easy way to practically understand and start to see the difference between whatever we are doing now and how it can be more strategic. For anything from challenges and goals to performance reviews and budgets, try asking these questions during the process.

  • Impact: If this goes as planned, or does not, how does it affect our team now? In a year? How does it affect other departments? How does it affect the organization, now or in the future?
  • Improvement: Has this been done in our organization before? By whom, how and to what result? Has it been done by our competitors or in other industries? By whom, how and to what result? Can we do it better, faster or more efficiently with this knowledge?
  • Data: How are we tracking this? When will we have the data, and how can we use it to improve? What other information could this data provide? To whom would this information be useful and why?

Keep it real

Questions will help expand our perspective and open opportunities for more strategic thinking, but just thinking differently is not enough. A key component of being strategic is the ability to bring all the out-of-the-box, cross-department, interdisciplinary thinking back down to practical reality.

We must use our expanded viewpoint to create a more-informed plan and then take action. By incorporating other views, departments and longer-term plans into our work, we increase our ability to impact the organization.

Further, our sphere of influence grows as do the opportunities to continue being more strategic.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Coming up with a few questions to expand our perspective and then incorporating that wider viewpoint into our work is a simple way to become more strategic. But leaders who excel at strategic thinking take one additional step: They practice.

By continuing to ask questions about challenges and systems, we end up finding more opportunities to ask more and different questions. Our repertoire of questions increases, our view continues to expand and being strategic becomes more natural.

We reach a point where we automatically incorporate strategy into our approach. And, ideally, we become addicted to looking for new questions, new perspectives and new data to continue to refine and improve our work.

The bottom line is: While we may all think we know what it means to be strategic, there might be things we don't know that we don't know. By revisiting our approach to problem-solving, we can improve our ability to be more strategic and provide practical ways to help others do the same.