Strategic Thinking

Straight Thinking by Dr. Robert Gerwig

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Strategy. Strategic planning. Strategic thinking. Harvard. Stanford. MBAs. Consultants. … For many of us, these “words” are linked together. If you do a Google search on “strategy”, you’ll be blown away by the number of hits. Likewise, if you “sign the check” (in 2012 it’s actually an electronic funds transfer made possible by an ERP system like SAP), for a “gig” from a top global consulting firm, you’ll be blown away by the price-tag.

Over the last 20 years, the business world especially has been enthralled with the concept of strategy. Me too. If you read my LinkedIn profile or LeadStrategic bio, you’ll see that, like my colleagues (Scott Yorkovich & Greg Waddell), I have a doctorate in “Strategic Leadership.”

Going back to school was a great experience for me. I met many great friends (student and faculty). Read a number of great books and articles. Worked on a number of great projects and papers. Ok, some of papers weren’t great (but I wanted them to be!). Oh, and I learned a lot. Yet, after all my professional and academic experience, I still find it challenging to explain parts of “strategic leadership” to others. For example, what is “strategic thinking?” How do I do it? How does it differ from “strategic planning?” Or does it?

This brief article will not attempt to answer all these questions, but I will try to stimulate your thinking a bit whether you’re a corporate executive, a coach, a parent, or a military officer. Maybe the topic is on my mind a lot this week because I’m giving a lecture this weekend at leadership symposium. The topic? Strategic Thinking.

Successful organizations and individuals continually “reinvent” themselves. Their values may remain constant, but their strategy often changes to reflect and take advantage of new dynamics at play in the world around them. Those who are successful are rarely caught completely off-guard. Rather they have assessed the environment and spent some time thinking strategically. Looking at and evaluating options. Testing ideas. Reflecting. Engaging others in dialogue. Asking questions related about decisions and their consequences.

One of the resources I’ve used in preparing for my lecture this coming weekend is Julia Sloan’s book, “Learning to Think Strategically.” In it, she defines “strategic thinking” as “a highly complex synthesis of the affective and cognitive learning domains that requires extensive use of the deeper, dive level of learning and a high degree of reflective capacity.” Her research supports five attributes key to learning to think strategically.

  1. Having an Imagination
  2. A Broad Perspective
  3. Ability to Juggle “competing, incomplete, and inaccurate information all at once”
  4. Ability to deal with things outside your control (No Control)
  5. A strong Desire to Win

Does this describe you? If not, get to work! Seriously, these are each areas that can be developed. Honed. Perhaps, some types are people are more naturally ‘wired” with these attributes, but all of us can improve in these areas if we wish to improve our ability to think strategically.

By the way, is Ms. Sloan’s list of attributes exhaustive? Perfect? No. But as Deming (quoting the statistician George Box) used to say, “all models are wrong, some are useful.” It’s a good list. Use it. Add to it. But take time to think strategically. Take time to think about the future of your organization, your family, your self. Ask the tough questions. Thinking, true thinking anyway, is hard work.

The kitten jumped onto the shoes chasing an insect. Probably a small moth. It was an easy jump, even for a small cat. But now there was a problem. The criss-crossed “fishing line” that held up the drying shoes (booties actually) didn’t look so inviting, but then neither did the metal pole that made up the frame of the drying rack.

It reminded me a bit of strategic thinking. Looking before you leap. Thinking about potential consequences and outcomes ahead of time. Weighing the pros and cons. The costs and benefits. What happens if I don’t jump? Will someone get the moth first? Will I be able to eat the moth if I catch it? Once I land on the shoe, will I be able to get off? What are the other kittens doing? Where are the big cats?

It’s good to ask questions ahead of time. To think about the consequences of staying where you are versus leaping. To consider the potential moves and possible ramifications of your competitors.

Strategic Thinking can be fun and frustrating at the same time. But those organizations and individuals, who are successful, have learned to incorporate strategic thinking with tactical execution.

What about you? Are you a strategic thinker? Or are you missing out on opportunities and taking on unknown risks because you are solely focused on tactical execution?

As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.

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