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Strategic Thinking, Strategic Planning: One and the Same?

Thursday, January 31, 2019
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There’s no better way to start the New Year than by focusing on the future—that is, how to think and plan strategically. Over the nearly four years I have been contributing this blog, I have addressed the topic of strategic planning a number of times, all from different angles and perspectives. In one of these earlier blog posts, I proposed a strategic planning process that is generic enough to work for any sized company in any industry.

This process has worked over and over again for me in facilitating talent development firms to create their strategic plans. But what I have found in my work is that most people confuse the processes involved in thinking about the future of their business with planning to achieve that future. As a result, few strategic plans are well executed, if executed at all. Why, you say? Simply because organizations fail to realize how strategic thinking and strategic planning are different yet highly interdependent. Most either skip to the planning stage without doing the necessary thinking, or overthink the process such that they are never able to clearly plan out their future.

This post will explore how these two activities are different, but also support each other as critical elements of the overall business planning process. Let’s look at the differences between the two.

Strategic Thinking

The purpose of strategic thinking is to discover new and imaginative strategies capable of rewriting the rules of competition. It allows for the envisioning of futures much different than the present. The process used in strategic thinking incorporates innovative and creative ideation to develop business strategies that have a greater chance of success and competitive advantage. We might consider strategic thinking as the what and why of the business planning process; that is, a way of seeing the current big picture.

Given that thinking is different from planning, there is a unique skill set needed to effectively think strategically, namely things like creating, imagining, ideating, opening, seeing alternatives, problem solving, and leading, among others. In addition, the tools needed to be an effective strategic thinker include activities like brainstorming, mediating, scenario planning, feasibility studies, and root cause analyses. These all seem to be largely right-brain activities.

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Strategic Planning

On the other hand, the purpose of strategic planning is to operationalize the strategies developed through strategic thinking that support the overall business planning process. This process also envisions the future, but translates this vision into broadly defined goals, objectives, and a sequence of steps describing how to achieve them. Strategic planning can be thought of as the how, when, and who of the business planning process—a way of doing and acting periodically to review, focus, and implement.

The skill set needed for effective strategic planning includes more left-brain activities such as organizing, prioritizing, focusing, detailing, implementing, and following up. For strategic planning, the tools are quite different from those of strategic thinking; they are likely to include things such as Gantt charts, timetables, task lists, utilization reports, S-curves, matrices, and the like. We can certainly see the left-brain influence in these tools.

While the two are clearly different in scope, as noted above, they are highly integrated and supportive of each other. At the end of the day, strategic thinking without strategic planning results in a continuing quest for structure and process, whereas strategic planning without strategic thinking results in a lifeless process of goal setting and measuring objectives that aren’t necessarily precursors to achieving real results. Strategic thinking informs strategic planning, whereas strategic planning gives voice, action, and structure to strategic thinking.

Having said all this, just thinking and planning strategically doesn’t ensure proper and timely execution. And, what use are both these processes if they aren’t able to yield executable results? In next month’s post I will provide case examples of how a few organizations have used both strategic thinking and strategic planning to achieve their desired business outcomes.

What have you done to include both thinking and planning in creating your business strategy? How have the two intersected to facilitate the effectiveness of each?

For more insight, check out my book The Complete Guide to Building and Growing a Talent Development Firm.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen L. Cohen is a 40+ year veteran of the talent management industry, having founded and/or led eight different business entities in the field. He also has served on 19 different advisory boards for firms in the training and education sector, helping them effectively navigate their growth strategies.

He currently is in private practice, focused on strategic and business planning and senior leadership development. His latest book is The Complete Guide to Building and Growing a Talent Development Firm. Contact him at 952.942.7291, steve@strategicleadershipcollaborative, or www.strategicleadershipcollaborative.com.
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