Strategic Thinking

Strategic Thinking is confused with a moment in one’s day, a planned period of time or an activity we must do when challenged to be creative. To some extent all of those assumptions are correct, yet when practiced exclusively they will not result in true strategic thinking.  Strategic thinking is best described as a way of being. By this I mean a fully integrated presence of the practice in all of our thought processes. Our tendencies are to compartmentalize thoughts through an initial perception that draws us toward inductive, deductive, critical and creative thinking modes. Although we already have the ability to think in all of those ways, we default to the one that fits the moment.

An immediate perception of the moment, when skewed by only one lens, can set us down the path of inaccuracy. Herein lies the rub – it is a self-imposed contradiction to the definition of strategic thinking – our minds tend to be forced into a “micro-thinking” mode all too often. The reason is simple; we are busy, we have deadlines, we don’t have resources, we don’t have the authority and the list goes on. These subconscious voices are loud and have done a significant amount of damage over time. They have convinced us that the obvious is okay and that mediocrity will be accepted.

What is happening here?

This is a real “stop and think” moment. Remember, the issue we spoke about above is reaction and that results in an alignment to one way of thinking. So, the first step is to take away the reaction and replace it with diligence. This may prove to be the most critical step toward becoming an “automatic strategic thinker.”

Example: The CEO of a large manufacturing client once presented an opportunity to my firm. The organization had been involved with a catastrophic product failure which resulted in loss of life at the end user. My team was “told” this is a manufacturing defect and should be identified via the use of Statistical Process Control (SPC) tools resulting in identification of the flaw. In this case, the use of SPC tools was supporting root cause analysis through deductive thinking. At no time did the client suggest or proactively think about looking beyond the process. Ultimately, we worked with the leadership to “provoke” them into discussing all of the ancillary process inputs associated with the “obvious” point of failure. Within minutes, it became clear that the failure could be related to something that was not even close to the assembly line. Upon a complete “strategic” analysis we traced the failure back to the sales team, who had become involved with influencing a design team and had inadvertently built in narrow standards on a combustion chamber, which resulted in failure. In this case, strategic thinking was at first overlooked, a reaction was set in motion and if we had followed that line of thinking, either the wrong conclusion would have been reached or the true point of failure would never have been identified, resulting in repeated problems. The solution as described, took more time, it cost more money, yet the problem was resolved prior to reoccurrence and that cost could have resulted in bankruptcy for the organization. Upon completion of the analysis, appropriate diagnosis and prescriptive corrective action, the organization implemented a “step back and think” policy. This policy was sponsored by the CEO and was mandatory as part of the problem-solving methodology. This process was to “provoke” strategic thinking. Circling back in 12 months, we were able to record a significant reduction in rework due to errors, showing the benefit on the planning side of the equation and this simply cascaded to the end user satisfaction percentage.

What/who does this “moment” impact?

The word “impact” changes the game; it forces our mind to look beyond the obvious and start considering the elements of the “unintended consequence.” Once we have opened that gateway, the natural human element of curiosity unfolds, and we begin to explore a wider spectrum of reality around the moment.

Example: Early on in the history of AMS, my friend and partner Tom Flynn was concerned that I was personally falling into the trap described in #1 above. Some of my human resource decisions were quick and not in line with the thoughtfulness we had embraced within our culture and mission. Tom suggested that I spend some time at the whiteboard in our conference room writing down the list of people that I felt were impacted by my decisions. I quickly finished the task as I felt it was remedial, listing no more than eight of our direct reports and management team. Tom asked me to leave the room for an hour. When I returned, he had extrapolated the list by adding relations to the eight people I had listed. Not just work connections but their family etc. The number of names on the board now, was one hundred and twenty-five. The result was obvious to me; I had fallen into my own trap and was not exhibiting any strategic thinking. This human resource exercise changed the way we preceded with the development of our firm and I believe was a core contributor to not only attracting the talent we now have, but also helping our clients to see the sincere passion for everything we do.

How will my “action” to this moment manifest itself?

Note I chose the word “action” not “reaction.” The behavior is now proactive because of the steps we took in #1 and 2. Since we are in control and not emotional, we now have the ability to manage the minds tendencies and squelch away the static of the distractions of time constraints, empowerment etc. Ultimately, we are now dealing with reality, not a skewed version of it we once knew as perception.

Example: My firm was once asked to help a team of executives running a recently acquired large document management company to prepare for an interaction with their new Japanese owners. Initially the team was in the throes of emotional “reaction.” They felt scared, uncertain and concerned that they were no longer able to make directional decisions for the organization. When we entered into the project it was more akin to a battle plan than an integration strategy. The verbiage was harsh, the goals were self-serving and ultimately if that action was taken it would have certainly resulted in a bad outcome. My team used a “goal value analysis” and “impact study” to illustrate the potential outcome of the action plan they had drawn up. These tools not only illustrated the outcome as negative, it “provoked” the team to step back and think strategically. The rewrite was collaborative, took culture into consideration and was met not only with acceptance, it was embraced and commended.

Have I validated any of this?

Strategic thinking done in a vacuum is nothing more than illusion. In order to fully vet any form of strategic idea, you have to include the affected constituents through a collaborative and iterative processes. Don’t confuse this with brainstorming – it is more akin to quality control. This action also supports the rigor needed to teach your mind to look beyond the boundaries of the initial reaction.

Example: In all the aforementioned examples it is clear that other resources were leveraged to come to the final conclusions and too help “provoke” the deepest levels of strategic thinking. My experience shows that by involving others in the process you benefit from diversity of thought and expedited due diligence through knowledge sharing. I fully understand that at times we don’t have the benefit of this extension of the “thinking process” yet I would suggest you seek it when it is available.

The above four examples will illuminate the concept of; “automatic strategic thinking”.

Each of us already has the ability to think strategically. If that is the case, why do we hear so much about teaching it?

Well, that is my point; you can teach it in the sense of “provoking” it.

Think about the places you already use strategic thinking:
• Vacation planning
• Family planning
• Home improvement
• Financial planning
• And the list goes on…

Now ask yourself if you bring it to work:
• Project work
• Process work
• Networking
• Brainstorming
• Problem solving

If you can identify with any activity in the lists above, and there is a gap between what you do in or outside of the work environment, you have to consider the fact of already having the strategic thinking skill set. So, the challenge and conclusion is that you need to leverage the examples discussed at the beginning of this article into “everything” and every “moment” to ensure you are provoking the behavior of strategic thinking.

Written by Phil Ventresca, M.B.A.