Seven Disciplines of Strategic Thinking - Know Your Own Story/Think Small

February 4, 2009

At the core of my book, ‘The Strategic Mind, The Journey to Leadership through Strategic Thinking’ lie seven key disciplines that form the basis for developing our ability to think at a deeper and more profound level. At first sight some may appear counter intuitive (‘act slowly’), while others will be more familiar (‘dream’). Over the next four days I will very briefly consider the disciplines (in pairs) with some comments on integrating the disciplines and the way forward in my final blog on Saturday. Naturally, in practice, the seven disciplines overlap and form an integrated whole.

– Wednesday: ‘Know Your Own Story’/’Think Small’
– Thursday: ’Act Slowly’/’Serve Others’
– Friday: ‘Reflect’/’Be Simple’
– Saturday: ‘Dream’/Integration and the Way Forward

Know Your Own Story

The foundation for success for both individuals and organisations alike is to know who we are and what we stand for, both in terms of where we come from (our background, family and history) and where we are going (our purpose and vision). To pick up on earlier comments in reply to Dave’s original post on the book (January 21st) our story is, of course, evolving as our level of understanding increases; it is not a fixed thing, we learn to embrace our natures fully over the course of a lifetime. Introspection and reflection play a role but it is usually within the inter-relationship with others that we discover most about ourselves. And in my experience it does usually takes a lifetime (albeit I may be a slow learner!).

Our story emerges in that dynamic interchange with all those around us. In the book I talk about the importance of understanding the significance of Richard Branson’s dyslexia in appreciating who he is and what Virgin has become. However, this remains only one aspect of a highly complex and dynamic individual. The perspective is important but it is not the whole. Yet this one perspective allows us to move beyond the simple ‘hero or villain’ mythology (building as it does on our own stuff transferred onto another) and appreciate our common humanity. I like to use the principle of ‘knowing your own story’ as the foundation of much of my mentoring work because it provides a solid bedrock to create the future; if we don’t know ourselves we build on sand with inevitable consequences. Most of us, certainly me, have been in that place at some point in our lives!

Think Small

We understand intuitively that vision is critical to strategic leadership. What we often tend to overlook is that so is attention to detail. Successful organisations tend to obsess over the ‘small’ stuff because they appreciate how important detail is in the successful execution of strategy. They don’t forget that ‘big’ things are always built from small beginnings using an iterative step by step process. Moreover, what may appear on the surface to be an insignificant detail often turns out to be far more important than it seems!

Entrepreneurs willingly embrace this paradox. They have a strong sense of vision combined with a tendency to ‘meddle’ with day to day operations. If you have ever worked with an entrepreneur you will know that this can be exhilarating and interesting but also utterly exhausting. They know intuitively that the ‘small’ things need to be right to make the ‘big’ vision possible. At a practical level, some of the largest and most successful organisations today are also built on an almost obsessive attention to detail (think of Amazon’s IT infrastructure, which underlies its distributed intelligence for example). I work with a very dynamic social entrepreneur whose boundless enthusiasm and determination to change the world is astonishing. Yet she is critically aware of the smallest of operational details, particularly those that go to the core of her proposition (woe betide anyone who lets the flowers wilt!). This appears paradoxical but she understands that it is in the ‘little’ things as much as her ‘big’ achievements that her endeavour will ultimately be judged.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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