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21 January 2016

Strategic Thinking: Creating the Future from the Present

David A. Zimmer Print


Strategic Thinking: Creating the Future from the Present

Can we see the future? Can we predict the future? Those who think strategically come the closest to what we would call predicting the future. Strategic thinking takes the present and creates a future through vision, decision, planning and doing. Strategic thinkers communicate a vision and motivate a team to produce a new reality.

What is strategic thinking?

According to BusinessDictionary, strategic thinking is defined as:
The ability to come up with effective plans in line with an organization's objectives within a particular economic situation. Strategic thinking helps business managers review policy issues, perform long term planning, set goals and determine priorities, and identify potential risks and opportunities.
In layman’s terms, Strategic thinking is planning towards some objectives considering risks, opportunities, priorities, short and long term goals to change the present into a desired future reality.

11 Critical Strategic Thinking Skills


According to J. Glenn Ebersole in his articles, “Strategic Thinking: 11 Critical Skills Needed”, strategic thinkers use these skills (my distillation of what Ebersole stated):

Skill My Interpretation
1. Use both sides of brain Left side for analytical thought, right side for creative thought.
2. Clearly defined and focused vision Provide detailed visual, emotionally stimulating, rationally acceptable and humanly achievable vision of future.
3. Clearly defined objective Provide a clear “why” and significance to the vision.
4. Design flexibility into plan We can’t predict the future 100%, so flexibility is required as more clarity dictates.
5. Amazingly aware and perceptive Strategic thinkers are aware of trends in their and other industries, broader factors that may impact the vision and competitors who could quickly take-over the market.
6. Lifelong learners Strategic thinkers are perpetually curious, voracious readers and processors of information.
7. Take time out for themselves Personal and professional development is a requirement in life for reflecting, planning, reminiscing and dreaming.
8. Committed to seeking advice from others Above all, strategic thinkers realize they don’t have all the best and brightest ideas - those come from working with others.
9. Balance creativity with reality Dreams without a base of real-ness are simply fantasies.
10. Non-judgmental Do not allow themselves to be held back or restricted by judging their own thinking or others during the initial development of ideas. Do not quickly dismiss ideas of others or themselves without due diligence of consideration.
11. Are patient and don’t rush to conclusions and judgments It takes time to analyze and synthesize information from a variety of sources.  “It takes time to build a fine wine.”


 3 Steps to Critical Thinking

In her Inc. article “3 Essential Steps to Thinking Strategically”, Lauren Perkins stated “to think strategically requires founders and key team members to continually assess their business and industry, and to apply new business insights.” She listed 3 steps to effective strategic thinking:

Step 1: Do research, connect dots of information, take time to reflect/ synthesize
Strategic thinking is not a session where we pull our key players into a room and simply think strategically.  It is a life style. It happens all the time. Although we might have concentrated periods were we spend more time thinking and planning for the future, we spend most of our strategic thinking time over a period of time.

It reminds me of a book I read by Gerald Weinberg concerning a method he uses to write a book. He called it the pebble approach. He would decide on a topic for his next book and, in preparation, would pick up “pebbles” of information pertaining to that topic.  Some people call them tidbits of information. Weinberg would jot ideas, information sources, articles, etc. on pieces of paper and put them in a folder concerning that topic. Over time, he had the information he needed, synthesized the information into a “story” and then would begin the writing process.


Strategic thinking is very similar. Researching current trends, market factors, customer requests and other information provides the basis for the formulation of the vision. The research provides the substance for the vision. The information must be synthesized into a cohesive thought from which the vision is born. Without the research and information basis, the vision will not have any foundation on which to stand.

Additionally, without a basis of information, when the vision is challenged, and it will be challenged, it will collapse. The data, information, experience and input from others forms a more solid and stable vision. As questions are asked, the strategic thinker can defend or amend the vision as needed. The information base provides the flexibility needed to shape a more viable vision.

A form of research strategic thinkers conduct is reading. They read articles inside and outside of their industry, books and novels of various genres, news articles, etc. Reading a variety of works provides insights into many aspects of life. As strategic thinkers, they see the relationships and similarities between disparate sources which become useful as they plan future endeavors. This uncommon trait of seeing the similarities and analogies helps articulate potential risks, opportunities, plan changes, etc.

Step 2: Go with the flow (strategy changes), act quickly, set road map, communicate strategy
Strategy is never perfect. It changes. It morphs. It evolves. Since we can never see all aspects of the path to the future, we must be flexible and nimble to execute around the bends and curves of our plans.  Just as in the days of yore, when we traveled by road map from one destination to another, we determined the path we were to take. The paper map didn’t tell us of construction zones, bridge outages, road closures, etc. As we drove our intended route, we would have to take detours and sometimes, re-plan our route because of these unforeseen issues.

Continuing to borrow from the road trip analogy, our GPS systems today do forewarn us of impending route changes. Where did that information come from? From others and staying attuned do our directional system. Strategic thinking is not a sole practitioner exercise. As Ebersole stated above (Skill #8), strategic thinkers are committed to seeking advice from others – not just at the beginning of the journey, but all the way through. The advice can help us to act quickly as mentioned by Perkins. And once the change is made, a strong communications strategy helps all others involved to navigate the bends and curves as we head towards our future.

Step 3: Decide wisely, prioritize, delegate
The Gallup Organization hosts a website called Strengths and published a book, Strength Based Leadership, which rates your leadership strengths from 34 perspectives. If you have not taken their assessment, I highly suggest it. Here are some excerpts from their characterizations of Strategic Thinkers:
  • Notice new, as well as, unusual configurations in facts, evidence, or data. Customarily pinpoint the core problems and identify best solutions
  • Eliminate distractions
  • Transform obstacles into opportunities
  • Design innovative plans
  • Entertain ideas about the best ways to reach a goal, increase productivity, or solve a problem
  • Chose a path to the solution
  • Continually watch for alternative paths and quickly calculate if an alternative path is better than current path
  • Delegate to others with stronger skills tasks to maximize productivity
Strategic thinkers, as you can see, are action-oriented people based upon reasoned and information-supported plans.

Conclusion

Strategic thinking: the process of planning toward some objective (new future) considering risks, opportunities, priorities, and short and long term goals to change the present into a desired future reality. It is a collaborative effort whereby a strategic thinker builds relationships, accepts advice and information from others, considers options and determines a course to guide others to achieve the end result. It is a not a one-time experience but is a continuous process of improvement of the original plan, taking into consideration greater clarity from experience, new information and collaborative input from others. The Strategic thinker inspires and motivates others in a team environment.

Strategic Thinkers are not “pie-in-the-sky” dreamers, but people who are very practically minded providing long and short-term milestones so the vision is believable and end result achievable.

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