What is strategic thinking? Two researchers identify the ten key capabilities of this familiar but rarely defined concept.
While businesspeople have a sense of what strategic thinking entails, defining this familiar concept in specific terms is a challenge. We know that strategic thinking and operational thinking are different, but what are the capabilities and mindsets that are required of strategic thinking?
A wide variety of conceptualizations and definitions of strategic thinking emerge from a review of the strategy literature. For example, one approach is to think of managerial thinking as “problem-solving,” while strategic thinking is problem-finding—in other words, looking for and exploiting opportunities rather than dealing with the day-to-day issues that arise.
Henry Mintzberg and his colleagues framed strategic thinking in terms of “seeing” problems from numerous perspectives—for example, seeing ahead (the future), seeing down (perceiving the big picture), seeing beside (lateral thinking that challenges assumptions), and so forth.
To capture the required capabilities of strategic thinking, Lara Jelenc of the University of Rideka in Croatia and Paul Swiercz of George Washington University drew mainly (but not exclusively) on two sources: the work on strategic thinking by Jeanne Liedtke of University of Virginia’s Darden School and a massive survey on strategic thinking developed T. Owens Jacobs of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (ICAF) and the United States Army War College (USAWC).
From these sources, Jelenc and Swiercz developed 10 constructs that lay out the core capabilities of strategic thinking:
Construct #1: Systems Theory Approach
Strategic thinkers should have a systems perspective, seeing the organization as a whole rather than separate pieces, and understanding the interdependencies between the different pieces—both in how the individual units interact and how solutions in one unit will affect the other.
Construct #2: Hypothesis Generation and Testing
Strategic thinkers should be able to imagine what might happen—which requires stretching one’s thinking, questioning long-held assumptions and updating mental models. “What-if” questions must be raised and seriously debated.
Construct #3: Focused Intent
Strategic thinkers maintain an unerring focus on the goal, vital in conveying an all-important and inspiring sense of direction and destiny. Behind successful strategy, one finds strategic intent.
Construct #4: Time
Strategic thinking deals with “yesterday,” “today” and “tomorrow”: the consequences of past decisions and problems; current disfunctionalities and emergencies that need to be addressed; and how to plan for the future. A time marches on.
Construct #5: Professional Capabilities
Strategic thinking requires professional capabilities. Strategic management is a discipline of its own; however, without knowledge of the technical processes in the firm, strategists can misuse the available material and human resources required to accomplish the strategic mission.
Construct #6: Conceptual Flexibility
This capability combines two ideas: comfort with models and hypotheses along with the recognition that change is constant and even the most carefully prepared long-term projections may need to be altered. As situations unfold, strategists must be ready to prepare and shift to new strategies.
Construct #7: Future Vision
This seventh capability comes as no surprise. Hypothesis generation, conceptual flexibility, focused intent and other strategic thinking skills and attributes are driven by the strategist’s vision of the future and long-range thinking.
Construct #8: Political Sensitivity
Strategy impacts a wide range of interest groups. Strategists will want to be politically sensitive to issues inside and outside the firm—from the tension between individuals’ and groups’ interests in the firm to the broad social and political issues within the society.
Construct #9: Intuition
Forecasting depends in large measure on judgment, intuition and educated guesswork. While intuition may seem “soft” and nebulous, the source of intuition is in the accumulated experiences of the manager—occurring individually but often-subconsciously shaped and assessed holistically by the mind.
Construct #10: Uncertainty/ Paradox/ Disequilibrium
The last element is a triumvirate of complexity that must be managed by strategic thinkers. That is not to say that the uncertainties, paradoxes and disequilibrium must be resolved or conquered. Instead, strategist thinkers are able to live with the contradictions, reconciling them as needed when action is required.
In their paper, Jelenc and Swiercz synthesized from a review of the strategy literature a process-focused definition:
“Strategic thinking is a process in which a person is perceiving, reflecting, feeling, realizing and acknowledging signs that impact the future of the firm, giving them meaning and acting upon them by shaping the impressions, perspective and behaviour accordingly.”
Given this accurate but broad and daunting definition, how does one measure capabilities in strategic thinking? The ten constructs above provide an answer, offering specific attributes and skills that business leaders and managers can use as guideposts to evaluate their own strategic thinking capabilities and the strategic thinking capabilities of others.
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