All students of strategic thinking occasionally feel just a little lost and frustrated. I imagine the topic of strategic thinking as a map – albeit a fuzzy and dynamic map – with salient landmarks that help you navigate through the subject. Even with the best of maps, you can find yourself wandering about when you’re in the field for the first time. Fortunately, with experience, the landmarks seem familiar and expected. The exploration seems more natural.
This article describes one “beacon” and two “cues” that will help you develop and improve your conceptual map of strategic thinking. By way of introduction, consider these three questions that apply to any orientation:
- Where am I now?
- Where should I be headed?
- What other landmarks are relevant?
Where am I now? (Find Orientation Cues)
An orientation cue helps you locate your position on a larger field of concepts.
Too often, people look for “best practices” on the basis that the external environment is predictable and obvious (which it is not). Instead, a strategic thinker will be sensitive to nuance and relationships. I like Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework. It takes as a starting point the idea of disorder and diagnosing whether you are in a simple system (causes and effects are obvious and linear), a complicated system (an expert is needed to analyze and design a solution), or a complex situation (the ultimate solution will emerge and each experts brings a distinctive view of the problem).
Pay attention to the current discourse; the conversations you are having with your colleagues as well as with your internal thought process. If the conversations are about productivity, quality, and efficiency, then you likely to be practicing operational (rather than strategic) thinking.
Where should I be headed? (Find Navigational Beacons)
A navigational beacon gives you a point to navigate towards. When you lose sight of a navigational beacon, you practice a kind of “dead reckoning” towards the beacon, making course corrections when you sight the beacon.
The two most useful beacons of strategic thinking are the future and success. By definition, strategic thinking is concerned with “success in the future.” Does your organization have a diagnosis of its strategic situation and policies for addressing that situation (these are essential elements of good strategy)? What threats and opportunities are present? How far into the future are you looking? What metrics are you using beyond basic financial measures?
What other landmarks are relevant? (Find Associative Cues)
An associative cue is an object or concept that contains useful navigational information. It helps you know what to do and what to think about next. In the past, I’ve written that insights are the secret sauce of strategy, so they are an example of an associative cue; when you have an insight, you should consider their use in the design of strategy.
Another tip for associative cues in the strategic thinking map is to stay attuned to the emotional tenor of the discussions: Are people feeling frustrated? Tired? These would be cues to approach the strategic situation with a fresh perspective.
Finally, the search for associative cues gives us a way to build the reflective competence essential for developing competence in strategic thinking. What patterns have you observed? Notice the number and nature of the questions that have been posed. If you are reflecting on the specifics of your situation, you’re not thinking strategically.
What other examples of beacons and cues might be found in a strategic thinking map?