Strategic thinking is for EVERYONE!

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Many people ask me how we are able to teach new managers and supervisors to think strategically - after all, they say, strategy is for senior management and planners; and, truth be told, new managers are meant to execute strategy not plan them.

There are many different definitions of strategic thinking and ours is not about strategic planning. Strategic planning is associated with vision, mission and objectives. It is about articulating business unit KPIs and activities to make that happen. While strategic thinking can achieve these, strategic planning does a better job at it.

Then what is strategic thinking?

We are aligned with Henry Mintzberg when he proposed that strategic thinking is the application of different perspectives. In his paper, "Strategic thinking as seeing", (in Juha Nasi (editor) Arenas of Strategic Thinking, Helsinski, Finland, Foundation for Economic Education, 1991) Mintzberg identified 3 pairs of opposing "seeing", with one overarching one. The pairs are:

1. seeing ahead and seeing behind;

2. seeing from above and seeing from below;

3. seeing beside and seeing beyond

and completing these, seeing it through.

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In other words, strategic thinking is a creative process of seeing a situation from all angles and uncovering new ways of finding the solution.

Jeanne Liedtka, who has worked with Mintzberg on many intellectual collaborations, operationalised this concept by offering five elements: intent focus, systems thinking, thinking in time, intellectual opportunism and hypothesis-driven process.

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These two models are closely correlated:

  • seeing ahead & behind correlates with intent focus & thinking in time;

  • seeing above & below correlates with systems thinking;

  • seeing beside & beyond correlates with intellectual opportunism; and

  • seeing it through correlates with the hypothesis-driven process

We use Jeanne Liedtka's model to help people apply strategic thinking.

Strategic thinking is for everyone.

I have not come across anyone who does not need to make a single strategic decision. Unless one is a hermit (and making the decision to be a hermit is already strategic), one has to make several strategic decisions in one's life. To marry or stay single, that is one decision. To purchase or rent property, that is another. To work or continue studies, that is yet another. There are a myriad of different situations that require us to think strategically and make the right decision. As such, everyone needs to be trained to carry that out.

Yes, just as creative thinking is a skill that has to be taught to most of us, strategic thinking is also another such still. To identify intent is more than simply asking, "What do you want to achieve?" because psychological research has uncovered the substitution effect - a process where we substitute the real intent with a proxy because we don't know how - or don't want - to articulate the real one. Hence, without acknowledging and expressing the true intent, the decision will undoubtedly be wrong.

Systems thinking is another vital skill. Because every situation that we face will be a part of a larger system, solving a systemic problem requires us to look at the bigger picture, to map the interconnection of drivers, and find the centres of gravity of our solution. Just like introducing non-native fish to the Alpine lakes of California to eradicate the mosquito problem not only led to the decline of native wildlife, the mosquito problem increased rather than got better; if we only looked at the immediate causal elements of a system and tried to solve the problem in this isolated fashion, we may more likely make the situation worse than solve it. Hence, there is a real need for everyone to be able apply some form of systems thinking so as to solve problems more holistically.

Don't leave it to chance

I could go on, identifying why each element of the Liedtka strategic thinking model is important for all of us, and why everyone needs to learn strategic thinking, but I won't. I think I have made our case with these two. What we cannot do is to leave the learning to chance. After all, we don't know what we don't know, and most people don't think about these things in their normal day to day activities. Hence, if left to our own devices, we will not learn to think strategically. Organisations need to provide that push, that little impulse, that will cause an avalanche of learning.

Because strategic thinking is for everyone.

Written by Ian Dyason

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