Developing strategic thinking with GROW

About strategic thinking

Strategic thinking provides users with a particular set of processes to view their situation from different perspectives and develop the best course of action. Often, when we are “stuck” in a situation, it is because we see that situation from one angle. Shifting that angle allows us to “peek around the corner” to see what is coming, or what lies ahead. Strategic thinking affords us greater confidence in meeting the needs of the future where no data exists and where we find ourselves going in blind. According to Prof Henry Mintzberg, arguably the foremost academic on this subject, strategic thinking can be likened to a way of “seeing” with 3.5 pairs of perspectives: seeing ahead and seeing behind; seeing from above and from below; seeing beside and seeing beyond; and wrapping all these up, seeing it through. Prof Jeanne Liedtka further refined this concept and provided us the framework within which we can apply these 7 perspectives: being intent-focused, systems thinking, thinking in time, using intellectual opportunism and being hypothesis-driven. I have written about how to apply these 5 strategic thinking elements in a previous article, so I shall not go into them here. But what I would like to do is to expound how the GROW coaching model can be used to develop strategic thinking, and how you can coach your staff to be more strategic!

The GROW Model

The GROW model has been used for coaching since 1984 and it has been effective for getting greater performance from others. The misconception with GROW is that it is too simplistic to impact business performance. In truth, it is far more complex than meets the eye, as we shall see in this article. GROW is the acronym for Goal, Reality, Options and Way-forward. The way it is presented makes GROW to be perceived as linear although it seldom ever is. Like in systems dynamics, the output of one aspect of GROW may become the input of a previous aspect, thereby changing the process as we go along. This makes the GROW model iterative rather than linear; and complex, rather than simple. But perhaps I am getting a little ahead of myself. Let’s first see how the GROW model maps itself onto the Liedtka model of strategic thinking and then unpack each link to see how it applies to coaching:

Element in GROW Element in Liedtka strategic thinking

Goal Intent-focused

Reality Systems thinking, thinking in time

Options Intellectual opportunism

Way-forward Hypothesis-driven

Goal and Intent-focused

In all decisions, in all situations, there needs to be an intent, a goal. Identifying this is important. Yet intent is seldom articulated well, if at all. In the question “Should I buy a car?” owning the car is seldom the main intent. It could well be the prestige that comes with it, the convenience of moving around, the cost (or time) savings to be enjoyed. Obviously, with a different intent, there will be different options to choose from. Therefore identifying why one wants to make that decision can lead the coaching session toward, or away from, a successful conclusion. In strategic thinking, as in coaching, we need to first establish the main intent of the session.

Reality and systems thinking & thinking in time

The Reality part of GROW is perhaps the most important aspect of coaching and underscores the need to stay on it as long as possible. It is no wonder that it is linked to two strategic thinking elements: systems thinking and thinking-in-time. Systems thinking is basically the process of seeing the connections of all the different drivers of the situation. It is more than a simple cause-and-effect that isolates the rest of the system from the situation at hand. Yet, more often than not, people tend to over-simplify their problems, causing them to focus on the “wrong” things. It is not that it is “wrong” per se, but these may not be the centres of gravity of the situation and dealing with them would only be symptomatic. Getting at the crux of the issue requires us to step back and see the bigger picture. So stopping them from jumping to the wrong conclusion, from identifying the wrong cause, from postulating without diving deep - these are skills that the coach should possess and apply to get the coachee to think more strategically. Thinking in time is the process of identifying the events and decisions that were made in the past that are currently impacting the situation. Sometimes the solution to our problem lies not in the future, but on what we had done – or failed to do – in the past. Therefore, walking down memory lane to uncover what had happened, what else should have been done, or what could have been done differently, can allow us to discover what needs to be done now. And at times, we might just find that what we had done was all that could have been done. In that case, we need to accept that reality and move on from there. The Reality portion of GROW is therefore a very important part of coaching and we need to give it all the time that it requires.

Options and intellectual opportunism

Many people are fixated on just one perspective when trying to solve their problem. Some see that customers are only good for selling to; and others feel that suppliers are only good for cutting costs. However, other perspectives exist for customers and suppliers. Collaboration between or among them to bring to market a newer and better product is another way of looking at these groups. The way you perceive your supply chain, therefore, impacts your ability to find new market space. Of course another system that you can tap into is your value chain, where incremental value-added products and services can be added to create higher yields. Finally, finding white spaces, where you use your current intellectual property and apply them in totally different ways, can also lead to more options. The key to optioning, therefore, is to find new and novel perspectives for the current situation – something that intellectual opportunism affords. The Way-forward and the Hypothesis-driven processDecisions never go according to plan. Just because one sits down and contemplates the situation strategically using these 5 elements, does not mean that it would lead to success. All decisions have inherent risk; and some decisions are more risky than others. Hence, we need to take on a hypothesis-driven approach for the way forward: lay out the assumptions of the decision, then test them along the way. As we do that, we uncover more ways to make the decision a success, giving us greater confidence in making a bigger bet. In so doing, we would not be throwing out the baby with the bath water with a straightforward “no”. This, ultimately, will improve our batting average for success and limit our exposure to bad decisions! Talk about the Way-Forward!


The GROW model can indeed be used to develop strategic thinking by embedding the Liedtka model into the coaching process. Through this, we can lead our people to be more strategic without them having to understand the concepts. And by insisting that all our people use the GROW model in their considerations, staying on Reality as long as possible, shifting perspectives in Optioning, and identifying different hypotheses and ways to test assumptions for the Way-forward, not only are we leading them to become more strategic, we are also helping our business flourish in a state of uncertainty.

Not too bad for a rather “simplistic” model, don’t you think?

Get our articles direct to your inbox! - SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Classic
  • Twitter Classic
  • Google Classic

Get our articles direct to your inbox! - SUBSCRIBE TODAY!