Strategic thinking is defined as an individual's mentally active response to an unfolding situation or challenge applied in the context of accomplishing some objective or intended outcome in a competitive situation or game. As a creative cognitive activity, it generates new ideas and creativity. We are all engaged in strategic thinking at some level or another. It has also been called "strategy capital" and "national branding." Just as fashion design changes with the style of the people who wear it, thinking changes with the changing needs of the people who engage in it. Strategic thinking allows you to adapt to changing circumstances, which makes it a powerful instrument for development.
Most people, from the top down, have a "strategy" strategy that they apply to most issues. Many senior management are strategic thinkers, as is most of the workforce. Even when a project is initiated by a "thinking" senior manager, such as someone who has had a front-row seat in one of the company's biggest success stories, it is likely that their strategy has included careful planning, research and development, and involvement of key people. A strategic thinker applies this same thinking to a wide range of issues and scenarios.
Some strategic thinkers are more creative than others. In a recent case, a group of financial investment bankers were called upon to make judgments about acquisitions, mergers and divestitures, working capital requirements and other matters affecting billions of dollars of capital assets. One of the members of this group was particularly creative. This bank manager creatively proposed solutions to a major IT procurement issue by creating a working group to explore issues affecting the core infrastructure for large corporations.
In doing so, he was able to show how an organization could use its unique IT acquisition tools to drive efficiencies that would in turn drive business value. The broader context that emerged from the case study demonstrated how using the right tools for the right job can have a far more profound impact on strategic thinking than was evident from the narrow focus of the financial officer's attention. In this case, the creative banker provided insight into a critical need and provided a solution that could not be provided from a broader perspective. In other cases, the need for a creative leader has emerged from the knowledge that only a broad perspective can illuminate the needs or problems of strategic thinking. Such leaders are capable of providing a broader context that allows a company to better understand the real world challenges it faces.
In both cases, the goal was to identify a process that made sense for the organization at large. In both cases, the ability to think creatively and build strategic planning teams requires that managers develop a deeper understanding of how they must think and how these approaches can be supported by their existing strategic planning skills. A third case study demonstrated how using a broader perspective provided a point of connection for a series of key people who had previously seemed to be disconnected. When they realized that they shared some of the same analytical and planning skills, this led to a creation of new connections that further improved the effectiveness of their work.
The ability to draw from different perspectives offers an opportunity for managers to consider a broad range of strategic thinking skills and to determine the most appropriate strategic framework based on the answers to questions related to each part of the question. For example, an inquiry into the strategic planning process identified that the greatest value provided by the strategy was found when the planning process considered the "big picture." The resulting strategic framework, when coupled with the necessary information from strategic thinking, provided the greatest strategic value. Once again, the ability to draw upon a variety of strategic thinking skills supported the decision.
The development of a strategic thinker requires a commitment to strategic thinking and the willingness to accept criticism of the strategy and its underlying assumptions. Furthermore, the strategic thinker also requires the skill to conduct in-depth research in order to support any strategic framework developed. The depth of the research required is related to the complexity of the questions being addressed. Finally, the strategic thinker must be able to link his or her findings to a wider context and make connections between the research and the organisation's strategic objectives. This ability is related to communication skills, but the broader the perspective the better.
While all the skills and methods involved in strategic thinking are important, none is more important than the willingness to take a critical look at one's own strategy and ask difficult questions and do the necessary research to develop and justify a rationale for the strategy. Managers who lack this ability are unlikely to have a clear strategy and will probably adopt a poor strategy that will, if anything, only be successful as a result of another, more effective strategic decision being made. A manager who fails to develop a rationale for his strategy will either adopt a strategy that does not address the key issues or will fail to use his or her strategic thinking skills to build a sound strategic framework and consequently will adopt a poor strategy that does not address the key issues or fail to demonstrate how the strategy can be successfully implemented. Therefore, to be a strategic thinker, a manager needs to: be willing to adopt criticism, conduct in-depth research, be able to link his or her findings to the larger context and make connections within the organisation.