10 Mar 2014

Strategic Thinking: The What & The How

"Thinking is hard work. That’s why most people don’t do it"

Jack Welch, the infamous CEO of General Electric from 1981 to 2001, whilst discussing Strategic Thinking was quoted as saying “An organization's ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.” We should take heed from these wise words, considering Jacks ability to increase company revenue by 4000% during his time at GE, by putting Strategic Thinking at the heart of the business.

Whilst a debated subject amongst academics, this post is my take on what Strategic Thinking is from both a holistic and granular perspective, and how it can be applied within the workforce. I, like Jack Welch, believe that challenging conventional thinking, following intuition, being curious to really challenge and understand things, yet mentally flexible are behaviours that yields results.

What is Strategic Thinking?

Ok, let's start at the beginning.

By definition:

  • "Strategic thinking is defined as a mental or thinking process applied by an individual in the context of achieving success in a game or other endeavor. As a cognitive activity, it produces thought. When applied in an organisational strategic management process, strategic thinking involves the generation and application of unique business insights and opportunities intended to create competitive advantage for a firm or organisation." - (Source:Wikipedia)

  • According to Dr David R Stevens, who is said to be one of the original pioneers of Strategic Thinking, it "is promoting unorthodox perspectives; challenging the obvious; and fostering divergent thinking and creative solutions".

  • Jeanne Liedtka, another renowned Strategist mirrors the above and has said that Strategic Thinking "incorporates a holistic systems perspective, it is possibility and intent-focused, involves thinking in time, is hypothesis-driven, and is intelligently opportunistic".
Make 100% sense? Possibly not yet! Read on, and I will simplify things with practical examples.

Strategic Thinking - The Helicopter View:

Moving away from the fancy lingo often proudly chundered out by 'experts' to explain all things 'Strategic', I believe Strategic Thinking can be simplified and holistically defined within an advertising environment by four key subject categories or pillars.

These are;

1. Understanding: A way of understanding the fundamental drivers of a business / consumer insights, and challenging conventional thinking about them.

2. Challenging: Enables a provocative and creative dialogue among all key stakeholders who can positively affect the end product/direction.

3. Growth: Focuses on finding and developing unique opportunities to create value and challenge assumptions.

4. Foresight: Having an awareness of what has not yet taken shape, exploring needs, wants, having foresight, and being first to market.

Hopefully the above has given you a broad and holistic context of what Strategic Thinking is. But, if you are new to the concept of Strategic Thinking, you are probably still a little perplexed.

Let's delve a little deeper.

What Strategic Thinking really is:

"The whole is more than the sum of its parts" Aristotle. 

To really understand Strategic Thinking, and it's implications, we need to delve into the granular cognitive and behavioural attributes that make up the foundation for a Strategic Thinker. Think of these attributes as separate parts that collectively make up a whole, and to quote Aristotle "The whole is more than the sum of its parts" - that is the end result will be far superior by collectively and consciously utilising all eight parts than focusing on a few of them.

The way I think about Strategic Thinking is as per the image on the left - with four actions in blue, and four cognitive behaviours in red.

These eight attributes work cohesively together, whilst keeping the company vision and mission at the heart of everything.

Note: Systems Thinking is the process of understanding how things, regarded as systems, influence one another within a whole.

In practice a Strategic Thinker;

  • Has the creativity and curiosity to think both laterally and literally to solve a problem, and to view a challenge/problem from a wider/different perspective.
  • Constantly challenges conventional wisdom and never tires of asking 'why?'.
  • Has the ability to make decisions, yet also has the mental flexibility to be pragmatic and listen to others.
  • Is intellectually curious in hunting for insights and gathering evidence to support them.
  • Ability to analyse data and facts, yet also trusting intuition to follow instinct and gut reaction.
  • Can creatively packaging all of the above together to create the best possible outcome.
Here is a recent post I wrote on writing a creative brief that you may also find interesting - 'The What & How of the Creative Brief'.

About the author
Si Muddell is a Digital Strategist who has worked extensively both agency and client side. Si is fascinated about marketing, psychology & what motivates people, and loves guitar, surfing and travelling.

Get connected with Si on TwitterLinkedIn &

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