strategic thinking

We have come a long way from the old analogy that an organization is like a bicycle: one executive steers while everyone else pedals as fast as they can. That type of outdated thinking was popular among early Industrial Age leaders like Henry Ford, who reportedly said that he only wanted hands but the workforce came with heads despite his wishes. Today, we recognize that tapping into mental resources at all levels contributes to an organization’s success.

The concept that only a select few can make smart decisions flies in the face of experience. The fact that people can successfully purchase a home, negotiate a mortgage, plan for college, and guide children clearly demonstrates that everyone has the ability to make wise choices about the future.

Leaders have made great strides in reassessing and harnessing the analytical capacity on the front line. Quality-improvement teams and Six Sigma reflect how the workforce is being used as a competitive advantage to ensure long-term success. Now is the time to permanently reject the assumption that the workforce cannot think strategically.

Historically, strategic planning has been confused with strategic thinking and limited to senior management. Now we recognize that strategic thinking is a distinct capacity that can be used throughout an organization. Strategic thinking is the ability to:

  • use a longer time horizon than daily performance requires 
  • broadly scan the horizon to identify potential opportunities and risks 
  • ask “what if” questions 
  • display curiosity.

The ability to “think different” does not require a five-, 10-, or 30-year timeframe, but rather the ability to consider longer timeframes than duties prescribed in a job description. For example, frontline employees, who are expected to focus on daily and weekly events, become strategic when they consider monthly and quarterly implications. Mid-level employees, who are normally held accountable for quarterly results, become strategic when they think about yearly factors. And executives, responsible for yearly performance, become strategic when they contemplate two or more years out.

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Recognizing patterns, anticipating unexpected consequences, connecting dots, detecting trends, or discovering systematic issues across silos are examples of strategic thinking. Encouraging this type of thinking at all levels helps the organization develop innovative ideas, customer understanding, and product differentiation, while leveraging new opportunities, avoiding risk, and creating new networks. It also builds employee engagement, job satisfaction, pride, and collaboration.

Thinking strategically is not an unrealistic expectation; neither is it a mindboggling process or age dependent. What really limits strategic perspective is a reliance on habit, past practice, and limited expectations. We should not restrict our employees to doing only what we tell them to do. We must encourage them to consider what is possible, probable, and beneficial.

What unlocks strategic thinking capacity? New practices include:

  • asking at every staff meeting what new trends are emerging 
  • capturing lessons learned from the most recent project that can be applied in the future 
  • recognizing those who demonstrate strategic thinking 
  • requiring an analysis of unintended consequences 
  • performing a broad outside scan before an internal detailed analysis 
  • praising and encouraging those with a different perspective 
  • insisting on a contextual review as the first step in complex decision evaluation 
  • asking for at least three alternatives instead of settling for two 
  • providing time to think, reflect, and re-examine traditional practices 
  • encouraging a second look at a different point in time before committing to a challenging new plan or process 
  • identifying key data leverage points amid the mass of data available 
  • clarifying what strategic thinking means 
  • asking for input before a leader shares an opinion 
  • coaching people to consider six different strategic data buckets.

Strategic thinking success rates offer a new perspective on strategic accuracy. Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, in their book Superforecasters: The Art and Science of Prediction, report that specialists “hedgehogs” are less accurate in predicting future opportunities than generalists “foxes.” Any tendency to rely on narrow experts must be balanced with the value of generalities. The “fox hunt” of the future does not involve hounds and horses. It entails finding, developing, and recognizing sharp strategic thinking across the organization and across mastery levels.