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The Value of Strategic Thinking, Written by Frank Ferrante

“The best CEO’s I know are teachers, and at the core of what they teach is strategy.”

                                                                                                                             Michael Porter

Topping the list of many CEO surveys on key leadership attributes is the ability to think strategically and develop that capacity in others. Strategic thinkers are sought after and highly valued, often fast tracked to managerial and executive roles.

The reason for this is clear – successful organizations need people who can manage complexity from a single vision, and then create ever-changing ways (strategies) to achieve the vision.

Amazon’s vision to be the world’s most customer-centric company utilizing the best technology has resulted in many strategies, from paying unhappy workers to leave to exploring the use of drones for quicker deliveries. This organization displays a creative use of strategic thinking.

How, then, can we further develop strategic thinking in others and ourselves? There are many ways, but three stand out and are highly actionable.

First, revive curiosity; we all had it as kids but seem to have lost it in our increasingly task and process oriented business environment where “Why” has fallen victim to “What, How, When and Who.” There’s barely enough time to keep up with the daily “To Do” without getting caught up in the “Why are we doing this.”

But the consequence of losing the “Why” is clear – employees who see no connection between process and purpose feel process is purposeless: They become disconnected, disinterested and disengaged; not a good recipe for commitment and certainly not for curiosity.

To reverse this, build into your leadership practice what I call the “Why for What” reflex; for every important project or body of work you engage in or delegate, explain why it is important and how it connects with the organization’s vision and strategy. Ask employees to make that connection as well so they see the process of doing related to the purpose of doing. Begin your staff meetings with an examination of critical projects and their importance and then discuss their status; start with strategy, then go to tactics and task.

Second, make strategy simple. I’ve seen strategy statements that can double as a cure for insomnia – multiple paragraphs of dense corporate speak, laden with clichés and loaded with information and amazingly short on inspiration.

When I joined Merrill Lynch in 1981, I attended the new employee orientation and encountered lots of information about the company but what made this information come alive for me was the story of Charles E. Merrill and his desire to bring Wall Street to Main Street. That simple vision told me what this company was about – opening investment to the emerging middle class, broadening the American Dream of financial growth, ownership and stability to all; this was a compelling vision and it informed my actions and decisions as a member of that great firm.

Added to those words was the iconic image of the Bull; a visual symbol of strength, optimism and agility (if you remember those TV commercials with the Bull navigating the delicate items in the china shop). This combination of vision and image was powerful and has stayed with me over the years.

More recently we see TD’s vision of being “America’s Most Convenient Bank” and the corresponding action of its employees in looking at what they do through the eyes of their customers. That simple phrase is the “Why” of their actions and has obvious bottom line implications.

These simple visions are not just slogans to recite but directions to follow and we can see how departing from them has tragic consequences – I will always remember and lament the events of the fall of 2008.

Third, know your preferred way of thinking: Is it more convergent than divergent, more right brain than left brain? All are good but for different reasons, know those reasons so you can adjust accordingly.

Formulating strategy has characteristics of divergent and right brain thinking – holistic, intuitive, non-linear. Implementing strategy is more convergent and left brain – logical, sequential and detailed.

You are capable of both however your preferred is your default; know it (what you know you can control, what you don’t know controls you) so you can function effectively when faced with a situation requiring a different mode of thinking.

Curiosity, simplicity and thinking styles are all components of strategy and acting on these allow us to become more effective strategic thinkers. As Michael Porter infers, every leader must be a strategic leader and develop the capacity of all to think and act strategically. If employees don’t know what the organization’s strategy is, the organization, in effect, has no strategy.

Thinking, leading and communicating strategically are the fundamentals for creating a culture of alignment, engagement and clarity, where everyone knows why they are doing what they are doing and never lose sight of the vision and corresponding strategies that create competitive advantage and organizational success.