Why Strategic Thinking is Difficult & Not Letting Fear Get in the Way

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The difficulty of strategic thinking.
  • A lack of techniques
  • A lack of process
  • It is not targeted
  • Its utility is unclear
  • Too abstract
  • Its nature is unclear
  • Lack of time

In addition, there may also be skepticism around it utility. If several of the management team are not actually convinced of its virtue then it again stands little chance of taking off.

There is almost invariably a lack of process applied to strategic thinking.  A robust strategic process might have, for example:

  • The process broken down stage-by-stage
  • Clear inputs at the end, and at each individual stage
  • Clear inputs (of data) at the beginning
  • Key strategic questions to guide discussion within each stage
  • Time set aside from daily activities (or sacred strategic space) for strategic reflection.

There may well be a lack of analytical techniques – other than rudimentary SWOT analysis – in use. While techniques themselves will not provide the stimulus for strategic thinking, without some framework to separate out thoughts the end product is invariably not much more than a brain-dump.

Besides these factors, strategy is often considered too high or abstract a level.  A business strategy in its entirety is made up of many sub-strategies or ‘mini strategies’.  Quite often it is more practicable to deal intellectually with a strategy on a more small-scale basis. By breaking the strategy down into small domains it can be thought through far more effectively.  A ‘mini strategy’ might be, for example, a specific project which you need to accomplish in your role, or perhaps a very specific market area which your organization seeks to expand in.

A common complaint that mangers have is that there is a lack of time to engage in strategic thinking. While recognizably managers are frenetically busy nowadays, this is often due in part to their lack of strategic effectiveness: not only are they not necessarily doing things the right way but they are doing a lot of the wrong things.

Facilitation of strategic thinking is becoming more common in leading companies, but there are still many sessions conducted by management teams which have no explicit facilitation and little informal facilitation.

Some organizations are also generally prone to fear – whether this is concerned with the market, new competition or new technologies, current financial performance or internal restructuring. This fear is echoed at an individual level where there are concerns about future job progression or security. Fear acts as a huge dampener for strategic thinking. More often than you would think, fear will either discredit and/or push strategic thinking resources and/or consultants away by suggesting there is no perceived value or it is merely a waste of time.

Finally, managers operate under severe cognitive limits. Swamped by information overload – much of which is of a somewhat trivial nature – it becomes hard to clear the mind for more creative reflection.

Cognitive limits operate at both an individual and group level. It is sometimes said that the average person can hold five things in their head at once. A not-so-bright person can hold their attention on three. A genius – apparently – can hold as many as seven things in his/her mind simultaneously.This is often said to be the magic rule of five, plus or minus two.

An organizational learning theory suggest, groups are often not as bright collectively as are individuals. Indeed, where those individuals are very bright themselves, arguably the results is even less intelligent as they tropically pull and push the organization in different directions.

In large part because of these tough cognitive demands – and also in order to gain critical mass – it is advisable to limit the number or major strategic initiatives –  or ‘ break-throughs’ to a maximum of three.  This is in accordance to the Japanese philosophy of hoshin – which simply means breakthroughs.

While the rule of only three breakthroughs to be conducted simultaneously is a sound guideline, it may be possible to conduct up to three breakthroughs within each decentralized business unit.  Also, once the breakthrough is well underway it is possible to start new breakthroughs.  If a particular breakthrough takes, on average, eighteen months to come to fruition, this means that potentially an organizational unit can absorb six in three years.

Strategic thinking is an essential ingredient of any senior manager’s capability. It is qualitatively different from operational thinking – and can be very difficult unless one is prepared to shift mental gear into ‘drone thinking’.

Organizations and individuals have quite restrictive cognitive limits. This therefore demands techniques and processes to break strategic thinking down into some structural steps. These steps need, however, to be managed as a fluid, intuitive and creative process, rather than one which is overly analytical, linear and primarily data-drive.

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