4 min read

Strategic thinking - Real or not?

By Simon Taylor on Feb 27, 2019 1:00:00 PM

Woman sat in coffee shop with cake

Woman sat in coffee shop with cake

I once worked with a colleague who always put a block in their diary across Monday morning. No one could disturb them, no phone calls got through. The place could be burning down, but they wouldn't leave their office. The door was locked and bolted from the inside (not quite, but you get the idea). in the diary for every Monday morning, it simply stated two words; "Strategic Thinking". On Monday afternoons, they were always in a foul frame of mind.  Asked how the morning has gone,  the reply was always the same - "dreadful, I've not been able to do anything"! The colleague, made the same mistakes every week for nearly forty-seven weeks a year. By simply blocking time out and calling it the thing they wanted to do, they honestly thought that it would happen, they would be able to think strategically. That's simply not how it works.

The theory behind their mistakes is genuinely very sound. Blocking time to do something, very good. Monday morning, OK they were fresh from the weekend etc.  But in reality, strategic thinking does not happen because you have set aside the time to do it. That is a good as simply a painter staring at a blank canvas hoping that an idea pops into his head to paint something, but they don't have either the paints or brushes. Thinking strategically is not an activity, it's a cognitive process that happens when triggers are in place. 

What is strategic thinking

So what is strategic thinking? The best definition I have been able to find states it's "an ability to plan for the future". It's the capacity to prepare strategies and conjure ideas that will both cope with changing environments and consider the various challenges that lie ahead". (Robert Half- Strategic thinking skills).

In reality, strategic thinking involves finding and developing a foresight capacity for the organisation, by exploring futures and challenging the conventions that currently exist within them. However, there  is a difference between being a good strategic thinker and a good strategic planner. They are two distinct skills.

Individuals who stand out as good thinkers and are able to aggregate a strategy together will have a set of skills that they are unaware of but can employ them to any situation. Ronnie O'Sullivan is excellent at strategic thinking when playing snooker, thinking and planning many shots in advance and adapting as the game progresses. Strategic thinking and competencies include:

  • Systematic
  • Intent focused
  • Able to think in time
  • Hypothesis-driven
  • Intelligent Optimism

They are systematic in that they understand the implications of their strategic actions. They will have a mental model of the complete system they are designing. Using sport again as an example, sports psychologists state that these individuals have the ability to marshal and leverage their energy, to focus attention, to resist distraction and to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve their goal. The ability to think in time means they can hold the past, present and future in their mind at the same time too. They need to be able to do this as strategy is not just about the future, it's about the gap between today's reality and where the future is. Being hypothesis-driven means that they test the thinking and work towards an outcome that either delivers on the hypothesis or doesn't. If it doesn't, they move on with intelligent optimism, always being responsive to good opportunities.

The four qualities of strategic thinkers

Robert Half clearly identifies only four key qualities of thinkers:

  • They are always learning
  • They always seek advice from others
  • They are risk takers
  • They never forget the organisational purpose

I will follow up with strategic planning in my next blog, but so far I am able to conclude that strategic thinking is real enough, but perhaps something that doesn't occur just because you put steps in place for it too. It's a bit like making time to be creative. This will probably make you less creative than just letting it happen.

About Ascento

Ascento learning and development specialise in providing workforce development apprenticeship programmes to both apprenticeship levy paying employers and non levy employers. We work closely with employers to identify the key areas for development and design  strategic solutions to tackle these with programmes that are tailored to each individual learner. With two schools of excellence focusing on Management and Digital Marketing we don’t deliver every qualification under the sun, but focus on what we know best and ensure that quality is at the heart of everything we do.

Simon Taylor

Written by Simon Taylor

Ascento L5 Management Tutor.