I had the privilege recently of working with a management team to help them strengthen their strategic thinking capabilities (they wanted to contribute more to their organisation’s strategy development, but – as is often the case in many organisations – were struggling to lift themselves from the day-to-day operational demands and immediate priorities). It was a very enjoyable programme, but I remember their observation at the end of one working session that they had found it tremendously stimulating but the intensity of thinking required was something they hadn’t experienced before. This was understandable – they were stretching their strategic thinking ‘muscles’ – but it demonstrated to me just how much the brain is exercised in thinking strategically, and one of the drivers of this is the different perspectives that need to be applied.
There is an excellent diagram by Professor Henry Mintzberg that illustrates this very well:
Strategic thinking involves looking behind at where the organisation has come from and how it has developed; it requires both ‘big picture’ thinking (‘above‘) and the ability to question and dig down in depth (‘below‘) to get to the fundamental core of issues. There’s the ability to think ahead to the future of course – but this requires also the ability to think how the future might be (‘beyond‘) and to think laterally and consider things differently (‘beside‘). And then there’s the ability to think through the possible implications, and what might happen. All these perspectives then need to be brought together in an integrated, synergistic and rational ‘story’ about where the organisation is now, where it sees its future (and why), and how it’s going to get there.
There is more of course – this is just the start – including what challenges the organisation might encounter and how it can be flexible and adapt as circumstances change. But it does demonstrate the several perspectives involved in thinking strategically; it’s no wonder that keeping all these in mind and making sense of them all requires such intensive thought processes.
Recognising just what is involved in strategic thinking is important for organisations wanting to strengthen their strategic capabilities: it is not just a question of creating the time and space for people to engage in strategy alongside (or preferably as part of) their day-to-day work, they also need to learn how to use those strategic thinking ‘muscles’. Investing the effort to develop these abilities within the organisation will enable better strategy conversations to happen. It is important too for people to have the opportunity to use these (all muscles need training to maintain peak performance!) – and that is where the strategic management processes, engagement and culture of the organisation play a major part.
There is increasing recognition amongst forward-thinking organisations that investing in developing their strategic capabilities is vital to help them adopt a more dynamic, agile approach to strategy that enables them to respond to challenges and opportunities – and to deal with an increasingly uncertain future – as they progress on their ‘strategy journey’.