Gaining traction in 2015 is more than just being in the game, but adjusting organizational mindset and culture to perform better this year while concurrently advancing their organizations to the future is not unprecedented. Strategic leaders use an array of techniques to lead, manage, and innovate in their organizations. But advancing a concept beyond kitchen table pontification or the board conference room sessions requires strategic leadership, strategic planning, but more importantly strategic thinking. Strategic thinking refers to cognitive processes required for the collection, interpretation, generation, and evaluation of information and ideas that shape an organization’s sustainable competitive advantage (Hughes & Beatty, 2005). Strategic thinking is an intrinsic process whereby a person discerns, envisions, and formulates his ideas into the components necessary to accomplish a notable task.
Think of it this way: There is a “soft side” as well as a “hard side” to strategic leadership and strategic thinking. In general, the hard side of strategic thinking involves the kind of rigorous analytical tools and techniques taught in business schools. But strategic thinking has a softer side that is also a vital part of understanding and developing strategy, vision and values, culture and climate. The word softer does not imply weakness but rather includes those qualitative thinking skills that are held in opposition to hard-minded-qualitative rigor (Hughes & Beatty, 2005).
The top management team at Apple demonstrated a successful track record of strategic thinking in innovation and technology. Kluyver and Pearce (2012) highlight Apple as one of the most innovative companies in the world. In a survey of executives around the world for Business Week, Apple has been ranked at the top of the most innovative companies rankings since 2005 (Einhorn & Arndt, 2010). Strategic thinking focuses on finding and developing unique opportunities to create value by enabling a provocative and creative dialogue among people who can affect an organization’s direction (CFAR, 2001).
Although strategic thinking and strategic planning work well together, they each possess unique attributes. Yukl (2012) describes strategic planning as being facilitated by a comprehensive, objective evaluation of current performance in relation to strategic objectives and compared to the performance of competition. Whereas strategic thinking serves as the input to strategic planning; good strategic thinking uncovers potential opportunities for creating value and challenges assumptions about a company’s value proposition, so that when the plan is created, it targets these opportunities (CFAR, 2001). According to Almani and Esfaghansary (2011), strategic thinking is different from strategic planning because strategic planning seeks the one best way to devise and implement strategies that would that enhance the competitiveness of an organization or unit within it. Strategic thinking serves as the central ‘ingredient’ in preparing for any task. The point being made is strategic thinking begins with exploration of the environment, an intuitive, visual, creative process that results in a combination of emerging themes, issues, patterns, connections, and opportunities (Sanders, 1998), whereby strategic planning is the creation of a unique position involving a distinct set of activities (Montgomery, 2012).
As we examine the attributes of strategic thinking, it has two major components: insight about the present and foresight about the future (Sanders, 1998). Traditionally, successful leaders are carried by style, driven by motivation, or interlace in leadership style and motivation as a powerful source to make things happen. When we consider what it means to be a leader in the twenty-first century and how leaders will impact the major changes that lie ahead, strategic thinking is an influential capability. The focus of strategic leadership rest in individuals and team who think, act, and influence in ways that promote the sustainable competitive advantage of the organization (Hughes & Betty, 2005). We use the term strategic leadership because it connotes management of an overall enterprise, not just a small unit; it also implies substantive decision-making responsibilities, beyond the interpersonal and relational aspects usually associate with leadership (Finkelstein et al, 2009). According to Finkelstein et al, the global furniture company IKEA would not look the way it does today if not for the philosophy and values of its founder and long-time CEO, Ingvar Kamprad. Wayne Gretzky, recognized as the world’s best hockey player, says that the key to his success is that he doesn’t skate toward the puck, but instead tries to anticipate where it’s going and get there ahead of it (Sanders, 1998). The same thing could be said about great leaders, they anticipate where change is going and make sure their organizations get there first (Sanders, 1998).
5 Keys to Remember to Transform into a Strategic Thinker
Hughes and Beatty (2005) asserts one of the challenges to developing your strategic thinking id that historically organizations have tended not to encourage and reinforce the two complimentary sides of strategic thinking with anything like equality. Cultivate your strategic thinking in 2013 with a conscious effort to tap the aspects of strategic thinking (Hughes & Beatty, 2005):
1. Scanning – involves assessing where the organization is. This involves examining the organization’s current strategic situation, and it includes an analysis of the opportunities and threats in the industry as well as the strengths and weaknesses inside the organization (Hughes & Beatty, 2005).
2. Visioning – represents a view of what the organization (or a department, group, or other unit) can and should become. Andy Stanley (1999) suggests vision weaves passion, motivation, direction, and purpose into the fabric of the leader’s daily life.
3. Reframing – involves the ability to see things differently, including new ways of thinking about an organization’s strategic challenges and basic capabilities (Hughes & Beatty, 2005). It involves questioning or restating the implicit beliefs and assumptions that are often granted by organizational members (Hughes & Beatty, 2005).
4. Systems Thinking – Effective strategic thinkers are able to discern the interrelationships among different variables in a complex situation (Hughes & Beatty, 2005). The basic premise of systems thinking is to habitually review the best logical approach to all situations, current and future (Hughes & Beatty, 2005).
5. Focus – Aubrey Malphurs (2013) advises that “focus” literally means to focus your attention on a specific interest or activity, see clearly with an objective or object in mind or pay particular attention to a place or thing. Focus for a leader (at any level) looks something like: building a plan to remain focused on, delegating the tasks related to the plan and encouraging those around you to do things with an eye always on the goal; this way…everyone will be focused (Malphurs, 2013).
No matter how much the world continues to change, the strategic thinker will be the key player in organizations around the world. Adopting strategic thinking as a lifestyle leadership attribute will serve leaders as an attuned compass that will facilitate their journey into leading people and organizations down the road through the future. Strategic thinkers are continually wanted to assist organizations with managing challenges, progressing beyond its current status, innovation, and the competitive advantage in their industry.
About the Author
J. K. Smith is an independent consultant and doctoral student at Regent University’s School of Business and Leadership. He earned a M.A. from Liberty University, a B.S. from Excelsior College, and a B.A. from Southwestern College. He is a decorated combat veteran and retired from the U.S. Army.