In a recent strategic thinking program, a participant asked the question, "Is strategic thinking time consuming?" This is a very interesting question that forces us to see what strategic thinking is, what it achieves, and how much time is required. In this article we unpack these issues and conclude resoundingly that it is NOT time consuming - at least not in the classical sense.
What is strategic thinking
Without going too deep into the issue, strategic thinking is the application of different perspectives to come to a robust solution to a situation. It is the activity that is done before the plans are drawn up, and it embraces the hypothesis-driven process.
According to Prof Jeanne Liedtka (1997), there are five competencies to strategic thinking: intent-focused, systems thinking, thinking-in-time, intelligent opportunism (in other words, reframing), and the hypothesis-driven process.
Apply all of these to a situation will take time, but it is time-consuming?
It's all relative
When asked to explain the theory of relativity, Einstein used the concept of two lovers spending time. To them five hours can seem like five minutes. But when we are doing something that we dislike, or have no interest in, five minutes can seem like five days! In the same sense, strategic thinking is like this. If we know, understand and embrace the impact that strategic thinking has on our business, then the amount of time that we spend in it is inordinately less than the impact that it will have on our future. Hence, it will take time, but it will be time well spent. That, to a large extent, is not time-consuming.
How can we make it more efficient
But it can take some time, and for certain situations, there is just not enough time to apply all the aspects of strategic thinking before we come to the right decision. So what can we do? While I'd hate to over-simplify the strategic thinking model, I can account for the impact of each competency on decision-making:
1. Intent focused
By far and away, this is the most important factor to strategic thinking. If you only have 30 minutes to think about your situation, then spend 15 of those on identifying intent; both yours and the organisations'.
2. Intelligent opportunism
Reframing is a very important aspect of strategic thinking because through that, you can identify new opportunities that might allude you if you stuck to the same frame. Without a new perspective, we cannot get a new way of doing things.
3. The hypothesis-driven process
The best way to learn something is through trial and error. Fail fast and fail cheap is the mantra of the strategic thinker. If all ideas are stuck in the head, there is nothing to show for it, and it would then certainly be time-consuming. But going to market to test the ideas would allow one to see what works and what don't in real time. There is no better way to learn.
4. Thinking in time
Our situation is the product of all related events and decisions. Looking back to look forward is key to allow us to see what changes we need to put in place to meet our strategic intent. Sometimes, the solution really does lie in the past!
5. Systems thinking
Applying systems thinking, identifying the centre of gravity of the situation, and moving them to effect the right outcomes are very important, especially if we have a recurring problem. While this is "ranked" fifth, it does not mean that the impact of this is little; quite the contrary, it is huge, as discovered by participants of our program. But it is fifth because one need not apply systems thinking to all situations; just like some people don't need to apply thinking-in-time to all situations.
This is not a hard and fast rank ordering of the impact of each of the competencies, and I hesitate to offer this as a list. But I have seen this to be the most effective order of the use o the competencies in solving strategic situations. But there is one thing that is clear - if you don't know what your strategic intent is, then all other efforts are moot.
Intent is first and foremost in strategic thinking.