Demystifying Strategic Thinking

By Randy Chittum, Ph.D.

JHC-March16-iStock_000026925732_LargeThere is a danger in the way we write and think about leaders. In an effort to find leaders to whom we can relate, we choose the highest profile leaders. Two things happen. First, we mythologize them and over assign causality to their leadership. Second, we elevate them to such a level that it intimidates us mere mortals. All of us have the capacity for strategic thinking. It’s just that the output of that thinking may look different depending on where you sit. Don’t let that stop you from doing it. Forget what you have been told.

Peter Drucker is credited as saying “Strategic plans are worthless. Strategic planning is invaluable.” He clearly valued the process of creating a plan more than the output of that planning. I would like to suggest an additional thought. Strategic plans are worthless. Strategic planning is useful. Strategic thinking is invaluable.

Tip 1: Extend your time horizons
We know that really good strategic thinking requires thinking further out than the quarterly sales quota or the yearly performance goals. Good strategists ask themselves questions like these:

  1. If we continue on the path we’re on, where does it take us in one year? Three years? Five years?
  2. If our business model were completely disrupted, what would we want to create in the next five years? Ten years?

Tip 2: Think bigger, broader, and bolder
Strategic thinkers spend a lot of time “on the balcony” and off the dance floor. This is the most useful metaphor I have encountered to remind leaders to intentionally seek wider perspective and to ask bigger questions.

  1. What does my business look like from the balcony? What trends, patterns, and themes emerge from this perspective?
  2. What does my business look like to my key competitors? Suppliers? Customers? How do you know?
  3. Ask the wildly counter-intuitive questions. What would we look like if we were not for profit? Employee owned? Publically traded, or independent? Had investors?
  4. What are we doing that has high sunk-cost bias and high opportunity cost?

There are two other beliefs that I see get in the way. The first is that if I think it I must do it. I’d wager that great strategists and leaders have FAR more ideas than ever get executed. The value is actually in the thinking. If you limit up front based on what seems “doable” you will miss a lot of important ideas. The second belief that is so prevalent among leaders is that all challenges are problems to be solved. It has been said that time is the enemy of the strategist.