Strategic Thinking…..taking the longer term into consideration and developing aligned broad scale objectives!

The smart manager/ leader understands that this is not a  ‘solo’ journey, but rather, one that actively engages all relevant stakeholders in purposeful, targeted dialogue to ensure clarity of task, relevance of actions, and congruence in all courses of action with the organisational, and departmental drivers.

The smart manager/ leader also recognises that this is an on-going series of dialogue opportunities that they create, rather than ‘knowing all the answers’ themselves.  It demands a genuine belief that all relevant stakeholders have valuable contribution and perspective to add to the strategic framework design…be that at a work unit level, or larger corporate position.

Strategic Thinking…starts with an awareness that it’s all about creating and working in the right relationships.   The key is in focussing on worthy conversation with, and on purpose, to understand, to clarify, to accept and to integrate.  In essence, Strategic Thinking is about Strategic dialoguing…. scanning your environment to pick up significant trends, and testing how your ‘present state’ of operations compares and aligns.

Planning vs. Thinking

Whilst both are components of a broader Strategic Development process, there is a fundamental distinction between strategic thinking and traditional strategic planning.  According to Mintzberg (1994), strategic planning is about analysis (i.e., breaking down a goal into steps, designing how the steps may be implemented, and estimating the anticipated consequences of each step). Strategic thinking is about synthesis, about using intuition and creativity to formulate an integrated perspective, a vision, of where the organization should be heading. (Synthesis being well defined as the combination of ideas into a complex whole)

When managers comprehend the difference between planning and strategic thinking, it is possible to return to what the strategy-making process should be:

“Capturing what the manager learns from all sources (both the soft insights from his or her personal experiences and the experiences of others throughout the organization and the hard data from market research and the like) and then synthesizing that learning into a vision of the direction that the business should pursue”    Mintzberg 1994 (p. 107).”

The Thinking…. IS the Talking!

Shaping the future of a community, organisation, or work unit needs to be an iterative and interactive process.  The ‘strategic thinker’ creates opportunities to engage other key players in a series of integrated, and purpose seeking/ defining dialogues.  This is definitely NOT solely the senior manager, or executive domain, but rather, an environment underpinned by a belief in all levels of managements’ ability to contribute insight and perspective and focus to the process.

The senior management group’s platform to enable this dialogue is to scene set the process with known and anticipated organisational drivers.  Internal and external, these ‘influences’ create the clear and relevant rational for forward moving visioning.  This is the big-picture purpose that defines the ‘why’ of the developing vision.  These drivers need to be clear, articulated, understood, relevant and significant.

Participation in this level of dialogue creates reference points for all involved.  This allows a sense of strategic intent and purpose to be embedded in the minds of managers throughout the organization that can guide their choices on a daily basis in a process that is often difficult to measure and monitor from above.  The result for managers (and subsequently their teams) is a greater understanding of the larger system, the connection between their roles and the functioning of that system, as well as the interdependence between the various roles that comprise the system.

The often quoted  ‘Silo’ mentality curse of many organisations is a key challenge that is overridden by managers looking further afield…outside their specific work unit, or area of expertise.  Greater emphasis on the bigger picture and purpose, rather than concentration on the detail provides refreshing, sometimes surprising and empowering perspectives that cut across many organisational barriers.  Intelligent exploration into possible impacting scenarios and changes on a business feeds into a more aligned and effective planning process.  As ‘sensible’ and obvious as this may seem, it is surprising how many so-called visioning and direction setting processes fail to acknowledge the dominant influences over time.  Rather, they have a more short-term focus around efficiency, with potential for a slow and agonizing ending at some point in time as a result of off-purpose redundancy.  The greatest buggy-whip manufacturers became extinct with the emergence of the motor vehicle!!

A good strategic thinker has a wonderful ability to predict the future.  This ability is honed by analyzing historical data, studying trends, observing customer behaviors, studying competitive moves and overall, being watchful of fundamental and monumental shifts in core drivers that can rattle their foundations – and, most importantly, dialoguing all the above with the right people to expand the awareness base.  Then, the environment is ripe for effective strategic focus, and the development of aligned efficient operations to achieve movement towards it!

3 Key steps

There is no magic or mystique around being a strategic thinker. Nor is it an executive or senior management owned prerogative!  It’s primarily about facilitating effective dialogue with the right people, and harnessing their skill, knowledge and expertise as major inputs to creating an efficient operation for the future, built on an agreed effective strategic framework!

The 3 key dialogues of the (shared) thinking process that managers need to facilitate are:

 1/ Define longer-term purpose/ direction/ vision in line with identified strategic organisational drivers.  Be cautious of some managers natural tendency to deviate into detail and operational areas…they are often blind to this as being ‘not yet in context’!

2/ Assess current position/ capabilities/ markets/ etc. and scan internal and external environment for enabling and hindering dominant influences. This provides some calibration of readiness to move towards the desired state.  Everyone has a view! This is where the detail devotees can have their head of steam!

A powerful outcome of this step is clarity around critical success factors to be addressed in rolling out strategy and actions.

3/ Establish clear, focussed, and aligned strategy areas to move towards desired state.  At all organisational levels, this then provides the template for aligning strategic objectives, key actions, performance areas and measures, etc.  This, now, is where operational efficiency meets strategic effectiveness!

So…. strategic thinking…positioned in strategic relationships…enabling strategic dialogue…facilitating exploration around the purpose and bigger picture…giving context for process and performance. That’s the Leadership challenge – to create the environment for these 3 purpose-driven conditions to emerge!

References:  Mintzberg, H. (1994, January-February). The fall and rise of strategic planning. Harvard Business Review, 107-114.