Operationalizing Strategic Thinking

September 23, 2019
September 23, 2019 Joe Britto

Reading time: about 3 minutes

The problem with operationalizing strategic thinking is a simple one. You can’t teach someone to think strategically. If that sounds doubtful to you, if you’ve seen the plethora of courses on strategy and feel it’s all about taking the right course, then you may disagree with this blog.

Because the premise of this blog is just as simple: thinking strategically isn’t based on a skill it’s based on an outlook. A mindset if you prefer.

Sailing to Shore

Why might that be? Imagine you’re a sailor. And imagine you’re heading to shore. There’s a strong head wind so pointing your boat at the shore and heading in directly isn’t an option. You have to zigzag toward the shore. But more than that, let’s say there’s other sail boats, buoys, paddle boarders, and even a few kayaks. It’s a Grand Central Station of waterways. And that means you have to navigate through the “obstacles” to reach your goal.

What’s this got to do with operationalizing strategic thinking? I hear you say. Well, in the same way that we can learn how to sail, but need to think like a sailor to carry out a manoeuvre beyond the ordinary, the same goes for strategic thinking.

The Limits of Strategy

What we need in the Grand Central Station of business is the ability to flex strategy. The problem with deploying strategy without being a strategic thinker is that too often the strategy is limited. It achieves the immediate goal, but if circumstances change, the strategy becomes moot. That’s why we see so much fire-fighting in the business world. I won’t dwell on that point because I’ve written about it before.

Strategy vs Strategic Thinking

What I’m getting at is that strategy and strategic thinking aren’t the same thing. We can build a strategy. And we can almost do that in a paint by numbers sort of way: cause and effect based on where we are and where we’d like to be.

But strategic thinking is different. Strategic thinking isn’t a process. It’s a way of looking at the world. It anticipates what’s ahead and adjusts accordingly. I was just reading about the attack on Saudi Aramco’s oil infrastructure. Because it’s on my mind, let’s use that as an example to illustrate the difference.

A strategic approach to the defence of the facility is to locate it in a remote, inaccessible location. The same approach would see the location heavily defended. They’d be levels of redundancy for each defence system, and an early warning system for any kind of intrusion into its airspace. They’d be clean up plans for spills and on and on. Those are the strategy by numbers I’m talking about: the simple, steps everyone knows about.

But a strategic thinking approach would go beyond the obvious. It anticipates and looks for unexpected situations. It’d be curious about what could happen if its state-of-the-art missile defence systems was swarmed with drones and cruise missiles instead of a more conventional attack. It’d be flexible in its development of answers to that question. Strategic thinking takes what it knows – in this case that the site produces nearly 50% of the Kingdom’s oil output – and sees the effect an attack on the site would have on the Saudi and world economy, not to mention Aramco’s upcoming IPO. Because of that, strategic thinking entertains the possibility of an attack and develops strategies to mitigate the effect on multiple levels.

I don’t know anything about the strategic thinking situation in the facility. So everything above is a work of fiction, but hopefully I’m making my point. That strategic thinkers think beyond the obvious. They start in a different place if you like. And if you’re thinking that sounds like something that can’t be operationalized you’re getting a sense for the limits of strategic training.

Operationalizing Strategic Thinking

Because maybe now you’re seeing that you can’t train a person to think like that. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to operationalize strategic thinking. it just means it takes a different approach.

That approach is about helping people think differently rather than giving them tools.

Growing the attribute of genuine curiosity helps people ask why; growing flexibility of mind helps create agile minds, growing enterprise thinking means people start seeing how their day to day activities sit within a larger strategic framework.

Nurture that shift in thinking and now you’re growing strategic thinkers. Give those budding strategic thinkers a chance to impact on the strategic direction of your business, and now you’re embedding a way of thinking. Give them a chance to see the effect of their strategic thinking by allowing them to implement their ideas, and now you’re illustrating the practical value of strategic thinking.

Allow those developing strategic thinkers to challenge the thinking of their peers and direct reports, and now you’re setting an expectation for what a strategic thinker does and encouraging strategic thinking in others. Do that enough, and now you’re creating a pipeline of strategic thinkers by shifting the thinking of your entire business.

And it all began by shifting the mindset of a group of people.


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