Strategic Thinking for Leaders
There is likely not a day that goes by in which most leaders will find themselves thinking and planning business strategies of their organization. Many leaders, either intuitively or otherwise, know this as strategic thinking and planning. However, for many others the idea of strategic thinking may seem as distant as an Ivy League education. To understand the process of strategic thinking and planning, we must ask what exactly strategic thinking is and what can leaders learn in order to produce greater success.
In her book Strategic Thinking and the New Science 1998, T. Irene Sanders states that strategic thinking is nothing more than applying insights to our lives to anticipate, respond to and influence change as it is emerging and before a crisis arises. Simply put, strategic thinking is a process of thinking about goals and objectives on a daily basis. Strategic thinking is a long-term vision and systematic approach to the environment in which the leader operates. Cornelis A. de Kluyver and John A. Pearce II in their book Strategy – A view from the Top 2009, state that strategic thinking is focused on creating a vision for the future of the organization and on crafting a clear, concise blueprint for realizing that vision.
Essentially, what de Kluyver and Pearce are saying is that strategic thinking is the “big picture” or “10,000 foot view” approach to viewing the organization and what desired outcomes ought to be. It is the ability of the leader to take a wide view of the organization and begin to piece together a vision of where the organization is and where it needs to go from there. Without investigation, strategic thinking may come across as a complex process, which is best suited for Fortune 100 companies. We eliminate this notion when one begins to understand that effective strategic thinking begins with a mindset or way of thinking about their approach to business. This mindset is made of competencies that one can develop towards the skill of strategic thinking. These competencies included the following:
Brainstorming: Strategic thinking begins with the concept of thinking itself. The most effective form of strategic thinking may be comprised of the process of brainstorming. Brainstorming involves self or ones staff and colleagues and is the process of discussing a stream of ideas until specific concepts emerge as logical paths to pursue.
Goal Setting: From brainstorming, one will begin to develop a strategic plan that is comprised of specific goals and objects for the organization. As with any goal setting process, the plans must be specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and timed.
Strategic Planning: Strategic planning funnels the big picture concepts developed from thinking and goal setting toward a complex model or plan of action designed to achieve the created vision. It is how we get to where we want to go. A successful strategic plan can be summarized as a blueprint as to how the ideas will be implemented. Strategic planning may involve a more systematic approach to accomplishing tasks. Remember, strategic thinking is the big picture where as the planning is focused on the elements that make up the larger context of the goal.
In his book What is Strategic Thinking – 2010 Robert Bacal notes that strategic planning focuses on identifying leverage. In other words, how can we use what we have to develop advantages over the competition? What we find is that the process of strategic planning is both analytical and creative. Bacal states that the analytical aspect of planning examines assumptions, “the way things are done”, and a critical approach that questions what the organization on whole believes.
Strategic Plan Review: The trend in strategic thinking and planning has most often been to create a plan and stick with it. Many organizations spend a large amount of time and resources to develop a 5-year plan that many times will end up collecting dust on the shelf by the end of the first year. This is not to say that a 5-year plan is not worthwhile. However, it is more effective to develop a strategic plan that is constantly up-dated and current to the latest trends of the market. As we know, organizations do not operate in a vacuum. They belong to a complex and ever changing world of which they draw from and give to. Not only should an organization understand the factors but have a plan or idea as to how to deal with many of those factors as they occur. This is where the concept of strategic thinking and visioning or the imagination of a potential future can be useful to a leader. It is simply the leader’s ability to sit and think of all the possible outcomes facing the organization based on the information available to them at a given time. The more individuals involved in this process the more possibilities that are available for consideration. The main issue is that the leaders begin to take off the blinders and pay attention to the big picture of the business environment. This attention permits the organization to tune into possible changes and to anticipate those changes before the market.
Understanding the Roadblocks: Recognizing the competencies to strategic thinking is not enough. Leaders must also recognize some of the roadblocks to successful planning and change. One of those areas is that of cultural differences or ones worldview. While strategic thinking is applicable to all countries and cultures, we must consider the worldviews in which the organization operates especially for those organizations that cross cultural boundaries. James Sire (1997) states “a worldview is a set of presuppositions which we hold about the basic makeup of our world.” According to de Kluyver and Pearce, one should consider ideologies as well as the relative importance of ethnic, religious, and nationalist movements. These factors will influence the risks of operating in such environments. One must understand that one’s culture acts as a filter which effects the way individuals respond to changes within their culture.
Leaders from all organizational sizes must come to understand the importance of strategic thinking and planning. Strategic thinking is a method of applying insights to anticipate and respond to changes within the environment for which one operates. Strategic thinking is an on-going, long-term process of analyzing, developing approaches and visions for future opportunities. It is not enough to hold the big picture view of organizational possibilities without also considering the elements that make up the actual plan of action. While there are endless possibilities related to ones vision of the future, they will be more effective with a systematic approach. Developing the skills of strategic thinking through brainstorming, goal setting and planning may be the single most important skill set an organization can develop. To ignore these skills and processes may be to the benefit of your competition.
For further information:
Sanders, T. I. (1998). Strategic thinking and the new science: Planning in the midst of chaos, complexity, and change. New York, NY: The Free Press
de Kluyver, Cornelis A. and Pearce II, John A. (2009). Strategy. A View from the Top – 3rd Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Hughes, Richard L. and Beatty, Katherine Colarelli (2005). Becoming a Strategic Leader. San
Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Bacal, Robert (2010) “What Is Strategic Thinking?” Retrieved from
Sire, James W. (1997). The Universe Next Door. Third Edition. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press
Philip A Foster, MA is a professional life and leadership coach with Maximum Change Inc.
He works with leaders to develop their purpose, life balance and achieve greater success. Encouraging leaders to take active and consistent steps toward reaching goals and objectives. Specializing in Organization and Strategic Leadership.