After years of talking strategy with business partners I have come to the conclusion that most of us don’t know what strategic thinking really is. Most of what we call strategic thinking is really not that strategic.
Thinking comes in many forms:
Howard Gardner talks about five in his book Five Minds for the Future, and describes at least six kinds of intelligence in his other writings
Edward de Bono describes Six Thinking Hats, written specifically for thinking in a business context
I have compiled a list of about a dozen or so approaches to thinking.
The Clifton (Gallup) StrengthsFinder identifies strategy as a distinct strength that some of us have, and I know many executives who proudly declare themselves to be strategic thinkers.
STRATEGIC THINKING DEFINED
So how is strategic thinking defined? Maybe if we start there we can better identify whether we are doing it, and how we might do it better. Someone contributed the following definition to Wikipedia:
Strategic thinking is about finding and developing a strategic foresight capacity for an organisation, by exploring all possible organisational futures, and challenging conventional thinking to foster decision making today.
From this definition we can glean the three keys to real strategic thinking, although I want to switch the order around…
CHALLENGE THE STATUS QUO
Strategic thinking requires that we recognize and shelve our entrenched mindsets. The current state of things is what we have determined needs to change, so we must move away from our regular routines when it comes to solving problems. It’s important to look at things from a new angle, to as ourselves why today’s performance, sales, market share, operational processes, and financial results is unacceptable.
Our minds are amazing in that they create efficiencies that allow us to operate with the least amount of effort. We go through much of our days on auto-pilot and do pretty well by this method. But this acting without thinking can also dig grooves in our minds that are hard to get out of. That’s why habits are so hard to break.
We don’t realize that the habits in our thinking prevent us from innovative solutions to persistent problems. Our normal problem-solving techniques, including brainstorming, are barely scratching the surface of what is possible as far as solutions are concerned. We tend to settle for an incremental shift rather than a break-through, and hope for the best outcome with the least amount of effort.
We say we want change, we believe we are entrepreneurial, but in reality we are tethered to self-limiting patterns of thought. So we must challenge the status quo, meaning that we have to face our limited thinking head-on and push ourselves to see more.
I like how thefreedictionary.com defines it – “Perception of the significance and nature of events before they have occurred.”
When we begin to challenge the status quo by becoming more aware of our limited and limiting assumptions, we gain insights into where our thoughts are leading us. We may discover that our current patterns are a vicious circle. When we take our beliefs and actions to the end of their logical progression, they may just lead us back to where we started from rather than to the new horizon we were hoping for.
The capacity to see into the future is not the purview of fortune tellers, but the domain of those committed to actively seeking to give the time and attention necessary to realistically see where a decision is headed.
Because of our brain’s capacity for efficiency, we often give up the benefits of strenuous thought. The rigor required for foresight prevents our well-organized minds from resting and reflecting. The best strategic thinkers are those who can train themselves to really consider the probable results of a number of options with realistic insight.
Expediency is an enemy of strategic thinking. We want to make quick decisions and move on to the next challenge. We go with our first instinct and dismiss all kinds of alternatives because they do not fit our parameters of possibility.
Saying things like, “that won’t work here”, “it’s too expensive, we’ll never get the budget for it”,“so-and-so will never go along with it,” and many similar statements slam the door on what might just be the breakthrough that turns the organization around. And to be honest, our organizations have created this mindset by reinforcing narrow-mindedness.
Exploring alternatives means not shutting down an idea out-right. The best brain-storming sessions allow ideas to be considered for a longer time. No alternatives are shut out of discussion, but are weighed for the unique merit they bring to the discussion.
The energy and high-level thought that comes from considering multiple options not only increases morale by encouraging people to contribute their wackiest ideas, but actually bring innovative solutions to the surface.
STRATEGIC THINKING UNLEASHED
There is no doubt that our world is getting more complex and that technology has accelerated the pace of organizational life, almost to an unbearable speed. To answer these challenges of more information and the need for better and quicker decisions, we must learn to be better strategic thinkers.
Innovation in-and-of-itself is not sufficient. Entrepreneurship is important, but the quality of our thinking cannot just produce more ideas, or they will quickly fizzle out and die, or get eaten up by the competition. We must go beyond the creative to the wise, which can only be accomplished by challenging the status quo, increasing our capacity for foresight, and improving our ability to explore alternatives.
Todd Conkright is a performance technologist, human capital strategist, and organizational development professional. He helps organizations and individuals mind the gap between what is and what ought to be through analysis of current state and strategic design of processes and practices to achieve what is possible. Todd is owner and chief consultant of Cornerstone Global Training and Performance Solutions in Omaha, Nebraska. Follow Todd on Twitter @GapMinding.