The Nature of Strategic Thinking

February 2, 2009

The key to strategic thinking is to be able to see a bigger picture, to distinguish the wood from the trees. I like to define it as the intuitive ability to see the whole. I have spent much of the last 20 years working in an educational and commercial capacity helping people to learn to think more strategically. At first, it was wrapped up in my work as a ‘strategic consultant’ (I really dislike that term as I think it’s an oxymoron) but over the years it has become a passion in its own right; probably due to the fact that many of my clients assiduously avoided the difficult ‘where are we now’ question and rushed as quickly as possible to the ‘where do we want to be’ and ‘how do we get there’ questions.

There are many aspects to strategic thinking but all relate in some form or other to the ability to see the whole and extract significant patterns from it. This involves:

•Challenging deeper assumptions and beliefs, many of which may be unconscious or hidden.

•Seeing the whole picture rather than simply the parts, including a sense of the connectivity and relatedness of all things.

•Determining patterns within the whole including emerging trends that will shape the future.

•Acknowledging that we have access to deeper parts of ourselves that have wisdom of their own (which we sometimes simply call intuition or ‘gut feel’).

If we bring these core elements together we can develop a broad definition of strategic thinking as ‘a discipline that uses our full capabilities to look at the whole, recognising the interconnectivity and relationship between the parts (including ourselves) and sensing the underlying patterns that lie within’. In my work, I shorten this rather unwieldy proposition to an intuitive ability to see the whole.

The ability to think strategically is vitally important, but on its own, it may not be enough to make a significant difference. Leadership is a complex subject matter in its own right and there are many different (and conflicting) definitions of what it means to be a leader. For me, strategic leaders are defined as those with the capacity to think strategically who also have the capacity to act. In other words, knowledge translates into action in pursuit of a vision or a dream. As such it is not necessarily defined by role or position (not all leaders are those at the top of organisations) or by value judgement (leaders can act in positive or negative ways). A higher order definition of strategic leadership may be the point where wisdom translates into action or non-action. The word ‘wisdom’ is derived from the same root as the word ‘vision’ and implies something more than knowledge alone; it is seeing our body of knowledge in the context of the whole and that provides us with a clue about the nature of strategic thinking. It is holistic. Moreover, a vision, no matter how compelling, needs to be founded on a clear view of reality based on experience and intuition.

Strategic thinking is thus deeply paradoxical. We cannot move to a better place if we do not acknowledge our roots in our current situation and see its nature clearly; the more profound this understanding, the greater our capacity for change will be. Many great leaders, including Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, spent considerable amounts of time incapacitated, which allowed them to contemplate the nature of their reality in great depth, albeit in enforced circumstances. This was not ‘wasted’ time or a period of ‘lost opportunities.’ It was immensely important in enabling them to bring about the profound changes that they did.

The Strategic Mind, The Journey to Leadership through Strategic Thinking’ maps out a pathway to improving our ability to think strategically and is structured around seven core disciplines (‘Know Your Own Story’, ‘Think Small’, ‘Go Slowly’, ‘Serve Others’, ‘Reflect’, ‘Be Simple’, ‘Dream’). Because I am a great believer in the power of story it is written around a very wide range of case studies; from large organisations (such as BP, Amazon, Toyota, Honda, eBay and Apple) to small local enterprises, community endeavours and some public sector and voluntary organisations (such as my children’s village primary/elementary school). It is essentially a practical rather than an academic text (although you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you have only read this blog!). I would like to think that it can have an immediate practical value as well as providing insightful and challenging ideas.

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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.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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