So what is a Strategic Thinker?

We need more strategic thinkers! The cry is universal and often heard in response to poor performance indicators or failed stratagems. But what is a strategic thinker? Are there defining characteristics by which a strategic thinker can be measured? These are the questions, and here are the answers….

Firstly, lets be clear – a strategic thinker is not someone who thinks about strategy. Strategy is a product. Just like thinking about a keyboard does not make you a keyboard thinker. Strategic thinking is way of thinking. A cognitive disposition if you will. Often the product of this type of thinking is strategy but not always.

Secondly, strategic thinking is not strategic planning. Simply put, a strategic thinking looks to create long-term value through the articulation of broad goals and values (the what and the why). Often this results in a considerable gap between what is achievable now and what is required to be done. Strategic planning seeks to bridge that gap and provide a road map of the how, when and who.

Finally – strategic thinking can be found in groups and organisations. However, for simplicity, we often associate strategic thinking with the strategic thinker (individual). Today, we will continue this pattern and mostly concern ourselves with the individual.

If strategic thinking is a way of thinking then what sort of ways should we be employing? What are the dominant traits of a strategic thinker? It turns that there are four primary traits. A strategic thinker employs:

  1. Visionary Thinking

    One of the key defining traits of a strategic thinker is their ability to articulate a desirable, plausible and, importantly, actionable goal. It is this articulated direction that propels organisations to success. The most obvious product of this kind of thinking are vision statements. All visions share three aspects: (1) they are a vision of the future (thus plausible); (2) they are a preferred future (desirable); and (3) they are required to converge our actions in a desired direction (actionable);

  2. Intuition

    A working definition of intuition is “a non-sequential information processing mode, which comprises both cognitive and affective elements and results in direct knowing without any use of
    conscious reasoning”. Admittedly, this is pretty painful and boils down to knowing without conscious reasoning. Intuition itself can (1) affective (judgements based primarily on emotional reactions regardless of any explicit or rational support); (2) inferential (judgements based on automated analysis); and (3) holistic intuition (judgements based on qualitatively non-analytical process made by integrating multiple, diverse informational cues into a whole that may or may not be explicit). It is this last type of intuition that appears to be the most important to strategic thinkers.

  3. Creative Thinking

    Creativity is often associated with unique ideas however, what is often lost, is that it is the value of that idea that is most important. Strategic thinkers are able to produce a large number of ideas (fluency), across a range of domains (flexibility), that are not only original but also valuable (quality); and

  4. Systems Thinking

    System Thinking examines wholes and offers organisations a method for managing complexity. It is an analytical method that attempts to understand how different system components come together to form the overall whole of a system. As a paradigm, it moves away from the belief that the dynamics of the whole can only be understood from the properties of the parts to a more holistic view. This holistic view attempts to think of the world in terms of many systems interacting together. Each system is a group of components interacting as part of a process

Are these the only characteristics of a strategic thinker? Probably not. However they are the most dominant thinking styles employed by strategic thinkers. Now, if you want to ensure that your organisation has a robust strategic thinking capability, then it would pay not to rely on a single individual to be your strategic thinker. A mixture of thinking styles in a group environment would also ensure that your organisation is prepared for success. Strategic thinking is a capability. Treat it as such. Develop it, maintain it and the effects will become obvious.


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