Knowing History: A Strength or Weakness of Strategic Thinkers?

Historical ThinkingOne of the most important things we can do to advance strategic thinking is identifying and removing misconceptions. In this article, I want to challenge popular advice: being well read in history develops strategic thinking. I’m defining “well read” as having read and account of the characters and events of history. A well read person can explain what happened and why that specific event happened. Too many people have a superficial knowledge of facts. This results in a mindset, explained by historian Robert Crowley(1):

We are left with the impression that history is inevitable, that what happened could not have happened any other way, and that drama and contingency have no place in the general scheme of human existence.

Superficial knowledge of events and characters is fine for entertainment, but dangerous if we need to problem solve and create policy. Deeper understanding of the past is needed if we are to make decisions about the future.

Here is my proposition:

Many people enjoy a good historical narrative, but knowing the historical facts does not translate into strategic thinking talent. This is because most histories are written as coherent stories of conflict and competition. The resolution is frequently narrated so that the outcome seems inevitable. Further, most accounts of history severely discount the role of chance. A frequent reader of history comes to accept personal character as vitally important, and overlook chance. This historical-thinking mindset hinders their ability to make futures-ready decisions.

An Example

I know several people (all men) who enjoy reading history books about great historical leaders, wars, and movements. They describe it as an enjoyable hobby. These histories provide coherent, consistent, logical narratives.

These same people are among the first to criticize leaders of business and government.

I’ll illustrate this with Terry who I’ve known well for 20 years. Terry is an avid history reader and is intelligent. When it comes to contemporary affairs of business or politics, though, Terry will frequently criticize with comments like, “they have no commonsense” or “they’re idiots and don’t know what they’re doing!” In the spirit of having a good conversation, I try to get Terry to see if there is room for another point of view. I point out that situation is complex. I suggest that maybe the policy might have benefits that will become more obvious in the future. Usually, my words have little impact. Terry has determined all those business leaders and politicians (it doesn’t matter what political party) are incompetent and it’s settled.

Now, let me add this element to my example: Terry once ran a successful business. Unfortunately, he made some decisions that didn’t pay off. His bank and creditors forced him into personal bankruptcy. Terry’s decisions could also be characterized as lacking commonsense and lacking smarts. Although it ironic that Terry freely criticizes others for their strategic deficiencies but he doesn’t see it in himself. (Of course, it’s no surprise the find stories that protect their egos.)

Little Emphasis on the Role of Chance

Like many books on strategy, histories are written with the benefit of hindsight. The more entertaining story is one of leadership, conflict and decisions. An entertaining story is a coherent story. Readers are drawn towards those stories that “feel right,” and which engage the natural optimism that “it will all work out.”

The role of luck is too-often treated as context. Competent strategic thinking takes us in more nuanced direction. In particular, a strategic thinker recognizes the value of Daniel Kahneman’s note on the importance of luck: (2)

Luck plays a large role in every story of success; it is almost always easy to identify a small change in the story that would have turned a remarkable achievement into a mediocre outcome.

Forecasting & Plans: Is the Future Inevitable?

When you believe that “history is inevitable,” you’re also more likely to rely on trend forecasting. If there was a 10% change in a variable over the past year, you’re likely to assume that this same 10% will apply to the coming year. Your mindset is anchored to a number, and the status quo is often the result.

A similar idea characterizes planning. People create plans as if they will unfold in an inevitable way. There is little consideration for the role of chance.

Historical Thinking and Strategic Thinking

Historical thinking involves reading the works of other historians. As an element of critical thinking, you critique the choice of evidence, the framing of that evidence, the tone and word choice, and the resulting conclusions. Instead of the inevitable “march of history,” historical thinkers look for alternative “second stories” that might equally explain the past.

Strategic thinking is not oriented towards understanding the past, but rather towards making futures-ready decisions that take into account the uncertain shapes of the future and the implications of that future. Here I paraphrase historian David J Staley: (3)

Strategic thinkers understand that surprise, contingency, and deviation from trend lines is the rule and not the exception. Context matters. Strategic thinkers explore alternative possibilities of what might be, rather than definitive predictions of the future.

A good historical analysis, like good strategy, probes into deeper layers.

Do you agree that knowing history does not mean you are a historical thinker? Do you agree that a superficial knowledge of history is a detriment to strategic thinking? What are the strongest and weakest parts of my argument?

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  1. From the introduction to What If? 2: Emininent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. 2001. Berkely Books.
  2. Daniel Kanneman. Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Girious ebook
  3. A History of the Future. David J. Staley. December, 2002. History and Theory.
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A Manifesto for Excellence in Strategic Thinking

Strategic Thinking Manifesto BadgeThere are two good reasons for you to read this article. First, a manifesto can help make strategic thinking more prevalent in your culture. Given the confusion in the field of strategic thinking, a manifesto is in order. Second, the practice of writing one will sharpen your own capabilities to communicate clearly to integrate divergent viewpoints.

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Manifestos are a literary genre. Generically, they are a tool for making public a set of ideas and advocate for those ideas. Some manifestos are radical in nature, and call for the overthrow of the status quo.  Since strategic thinking needs to be better socialized in organizations, and since the status quo leads to stagnation, the manifesto can be powerful. A manifesto is a call to action; a rejection of conventional ways of doing things.

A Simple Formula for a Manifesto

According to Tristan Tzara, “To launch a manifesto, you have to want A, B, & C and fulminate against 1, 2, & 3.”  It’s a nice straightforward template.  We first identify the kinds of things we want (Tzara’s ABC) and then register our complaints about the current state (Tzara’s 123). The final step is combining the 123s with the ABCs.

A Short List of Desirable Things (Tzara’s ABCs)

By definition, strategic thinking has an orientation towards “success in the future” (see the first article in this blog for the definition of strategic thinking). The word success is multidimensional in meaning. Here is a short listing of desirable things that people would want for the future of their organizations:

Survive and thrive. To win the game. Create wealth for shareholders. Avoid disruption. Be creative: express self and solve problems. Collaborate. Get things done in the here and now. Principles. Leave a better world for our descendants. Hope. Prestige. Coherence. Fairness. Social responsibility. Quality. Enlightenment. Transparency. Accountability.

A comment:  Strategy involves advancing the organization’s interests. All of the above are generically in the interests of most organizations, most of the time.  Because strategy is a kind of specialized problem solving, strategies must establish the relative prioritization of those interests given its current reality.

Social Responsibility is One of Several Interests

Notice many of the items in the above list, for business organizations, fall into the category of social responsibility. This is good news for strategic thinking, because current trends to expand the scope of organizational interests beyond financial metrics means that people are going to be more open minded and flexible in their values.

A Not-So-Short List of Things to Complain About (Tzara’s 123s)

Back to Tzara’s formula for a manifesto. He says a manifesto describes the things – a litany if you will – that we fulminate against. Consider these facets of the current condition:

Failed states and institutions. Short term, selfish behavior. Lack of integrity. Bureaucracy. Sloppy language and terms drained of meaning. Mediocrity. Existing power structures preserve the status quo. Desire for predictability. Excesses of functionalism and synoptic planning. Dogma. Disruption. Polarization in organizations and in society. Narrow, silos focused on strategically-irrelevant activities. Reasoning backward. Nepotism. Multitasking. Isolation and self-doubt. Firefighting and crisis management. Waste, sloth, and inefficiency. Distractions.

They are the current state.  Let’s quickly review current practices about strategic thinking. For most individuals and organizations, there is mediocrity and dysfunction. Most of them have to do with sloppy language. Consider:

  • Some people (erroneously) declare strategic thinking as the front end of the strategy process. First you think about things, and then make plans.
  • Some people (erroneously) use it as a label for their plea to “think about” strategy.
  • Some people (erroneously) use it as an excuse to introduce tools and frameworks of strategy analysis and strategy making.

Now, to top that off, the word “strategy” has been drained of meaning. For some, it is the goal or the vision. For some strategy is the steps to an objective. For some, it is an inspirational mission and vision.  Hence, the value of Richard Rumelt’s practice identifying good strategy so as to distinguish from bad strategy (bad strategy being the norm for most organizations).

I don’t know about you, but the current state of strategic thinking is populated by lazy people, cowards, charlatans, and the misinformed.  It makes me angry, and it believe that competency in strategic thinking and clarity of good strategy is a fight worth fighting!

Putting it All Together into A Manifesto

Following Tzara’s formula and the items listed above, we now have a template.  Here is what you write for the first part of the manifesto:

The current state of the world is ____ (select from your 1-2-3 list).  You continue with a statement that you find the current state unacceptable. If you want, reject it outright (the Latin roots of the word manifesto translate into “hostile hand”). This is unacceptable to us.

As you establish the current state is unacceptable, you move forward with a call to action. That is where the A-B-C list is helpful. You select from those “interests.” that are most basic, perhaps referring to them as original (first principles). In political discourse, you’ll find often reference to God in some (USA’s Declaration of Independence or Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail) or rationality (again, the Declaration of Independence and add to that Communist Manifesto). In artistic discourse, you’ll simply note that the prior state lacks truth or integrity.  In business, you’ll often find the reference point the founder’s values (care for the customer, frugality, excellence).

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Here my first cut at a manifesto:

A Manifesto for Strategic Thinking

Current practice in strategic thinking and strategy-making  is poor. Those leaders of organizations who hold misconceptions about strategy and strategic thinking are putting at risk the future of their organizations, and are not fulfilling their fiduciary obligations to shareholders and social responsibilities to stakeholders.

History shows our organizations and institutions are constantly under threat of disruption. If we are incumbents, we need to overcome the stubbornness of the status quo. If we can ethically gain advantage for ourselves by disrupting the status quo, we should take advantage of opportunities presented to us.

Board of Directors should replace leaders who can’t competently practice strategic thinking and can create good strategy. Corporate Governance should audit for good strategy and not just supporting verbiage for budgetary projections.

Leaders at all levels must invest in learning and practicing strategic thinking. People at all levels need to have a clear understanding of what good strategy is and is not. Further, they need to clearly understand what strategic thinking is and is not

With clear and reasonable understanding of the foundation concepts, any person can practice strategic thinking. In working with their organizations, they can develop and implement good strategy. It simply takes courage to identify and face up to challenges, the willingness to invest resources, and combine the resources with action.

Yanshevsky writes, “The author of a manifesto sees himself first and foremost as a researcher, an inventor, a discoverer.” Do you agree?  

Four Causes of Mediocre Strategic Thinking

Mediocre Strategic Thinking (Four Causes)Avoiding mediocre strategic thinking by better understanding strategy

Mediocre strategic thinking produces mediocre strategy. Strategic thinking is an individual capacity, a style of thinking that can be developed, but is often hindered by the beliefs of others.

Here are four causes of mediocre strategic thinking (and there are certainly more that could be described):

1. Overlooking the significance of rivalry.

As organizations grow in size and complexity, they specialize and turn over responsibility for sales, deal making, and customer service to specialists. As those individuals lose touch with customers and markets, they shift their focus to  the rules, process, and tasks of their work. Eventually, strategy devolves to become a kind of goal setting.

Even more important, many managers give up on trying to understand why competitors are making inroads. They complacently believe in the superiority of their employees, products, and business models. Rivals (and substitutes) want your markets and profits, and they sneak up on you.

Making people aware of competition was one of Louis V. Gerstner Jr’s big challenges in turning around IBM. Here is how he expressed his frustration to a senior management team in 1994:

You know, I have received literally thousands and thousands of email messages since I’ve been in this company, and I’ve read every one. I want you to know that I cannot – I cannot – remember a single one that talked with passion about a competitor. [Comment: My reading of the entirety of Gerstner’s book, Even Elephants Can Learn to Dance, shows me that he meant the word “passion” as anger towards an external threat.] Many thousands of them talked with passion about other parts of IBM. We’ve got to generate some collective anger here about what our competitors say about us, about what they’re doing to us in the marketplace. This competitive focus has to be visceral, not cerebral. It’s got to be in our guts, not our heads. They’re coming into our house and taking our children’s and our grandchildren’s college money. That’s what they’re doing.

When was the last time you visited or talked to a customer? When was the last time you checked the feed on your organization’s (and your competitor’s) social media? What does your organization do to frustrate the customers?

  1. Confusing Strategy with “Steps To”

It is a gross oversimplification to say that strategy is the “steps to” the a goal. Strategy is not like a road trip with an established path. Strategy is more like the process of curing a disease.

Strategy making resembles the process of becoming a medical doctor. Novice physicians (newly-graduated MDs) often practice “backward reasoning” and jump from initially presented information to a diagnosis to search for data that supports their initial impression. Many business people use this same kind of backwards reasoning. I recently read the remarks of a General Motors Vice President explaining that chess masters pick their end goal (the checkmate) and work back from it. Not only is that an example of backwards reasoning, it’s an erroneous declaration; research shows that chess masters develop their games through patterns and react to the patterns established by their opponents. (You can find more on chess and strategy described in this article).

Expert business strategists, expert medical doctors, and chess masters employ “forward reasoning.” As they enter into a situation, they take note of symptoms and patterns. Then, they develop several possible diagnoses or ploys. They dig deeper into the data and use it to determine which hypothesis best fits the data.

  1. Over-valuing Ordered Perfection

Strategy making is an inherently messy, ambiguous process. Let’s consider the early step of environmental scanning, where we see signals – strong and weak – from existing customers, prospective customers, competitors, and regulators. What do they all mean?

As a general rule, people don’t like ambiguity. It causes them stress and they try to eliminate it if they can and ignore it if they can’t. One way of eliminating ambiguity is the famous use of mission, vision, and values statements. These can be useful tools; however, don’t waste time with endless word-smithing and polishing.

Good strategy isn’t about perfect statements of intent. Instead, good strategy focuses on finding insights in the signals and developing useful guidance for exploiting those insights. It involves educated guesses about a range of important things: the current situation, the future situation, the intentions of competitors and stakeholders, the values of stakeholders, and power.

Good strategic thinkers tolerate ambiguity. They are open to experimenting with the business model and learning from those experiments.

  1. Elitism

Too often, those people invited to strategy making sessions are invited because of their status, not because of their ability to contribute to the hard work of making strategy. Last Autumn, I learned that a Human Resource Vice President of a snow-belt-based company, on behalf of the CEO, was planning a strategy retreat in the Bahamas. The invitees to the session were the CEO’s top team. It seems likely that this strategy meeting was an excuse for a selected inner circle of managers to escape a cold Toronto winter. They’ll come back with a vision and a suntan, but I wonder if they will come back with anything the helps them address their organization’s challenges.

Another large, family-owned firm faced a similar problem. Many family members had inherited stock in the company and felt that gave them the right to demand board membership and to have their uninformed (and often selfish) views and opinions considered by the Managing Committee.

While top managers typically have a broader view of the organization, it does not hold that only they are exclusively best qualified to provide open-minded thinking and fresh perspective. While company owners are legitimate stakeholders, they often attention seekers. Status and privilege are not the characteristics of strategic thinkers,

Instead, look for every way you can to get customer insights, next generation perspective, and the voice of the technology into your strategy discussions.

Final Thoughts

Strategy making is a form of problem solving; not just a goal-setting or budgeting exercise. Strategy is about advancing the organization’s interests. To do it well you have to ask some basic questions:

  • Have we defined and committed to our basic organizational interests?
  • As we consider the future, what are the most important problems,issues, and opportunities that affect our interests?
  • Have we looked for weak signals outside of the normal discourse of our organization?
  • Are we alert for “pockets of the future” that are presently around us?

As you avoid these four causes of mediocre strategic thinking, you should migrate towards this advice from the respected academic, Henry Mintzberg:

“The real challenge in crafting strategy lies in detecting subtle discontinuities that may undermine a business in the future. And for that there is no technique, no program, just a sharp mind in touch with the situation.”

Do you agree with this list? What other causes would you add?

Gregs new book available now

How to Recognize Competence in Strategic Thinking

Strategic Thinking CompetenceAs a strategic thinking coach, I help people become more competent in the art of thinking strategically. Since strategic thinking, by definition, is concerned with success, I need to provide some sort of target for competency. That is the purpose of this article.

Why before What

Strategic thinking is hard work, and that is why it is uncommon. Let’s quickly affirm that you will experience benefits from investing effort into this discipline. It offers many benefits:

  • People get promoted because of their ability to think strategically. Strategic thinking is the #1 desired skill of the next generation of managers
  • Organizations with good strategy thrive; we are in an age of exploding complexity and this complexity creates threats and opportunities. The purpose of strategic thinking is to create good strategy; thus, organizational success is directly tied to success.
  • The world is full of opportunity for entrepreneurs who think strategically

An Individual Competency, Not an Organizational Process

I remind you that strategic thinking is a style of thinking, practiced by the individual. Strategic thinking is not a set of process or a part of a process (some people mistakenly confuse it for environmental scanning) or a tool (some people mistakenly confuse it for SWOT or scenarios); although those processes and tools can enhance the practice of thinking strategically.

Characteristics of a Good Strategic Thinker

Based on my experience, the competency goal is this:

A person is a competent strategic thinker when
they naturally and intuitively think strategically.

Here is what I would look for if I were evaluating a person as a competent strategic thinker:

  • The person is continually thinking about how he or she defines success.
  • As part of the definition of success, he or she recognizes that resources are limited and must be focused on those activities that increase the realization of success
  • The person recognizes ambiguity, and does not seek to eliminate the ambiguity until they feel they understand the situation
  • The person generally curious. As part of this curiosity, he or she is alert for patterns and see patterns and systems effects. He or she is alert for opportunities.
  • The person recognizes inertia; that is, the state of affairs when there is little change and other are habitually following the status quo.  In this case, the strategic thinker might encourage change (of a low-grade variety) simply to break the routine. I recently heard of a team of executives who decided to read magazines from outside their industry and field of expertise.
  • The person recognizes when compartmentalization of functions and specialties in an organization are causing too-narrow of a view of the organization.
  • The person is more aware of strategic resources in their possession.

What does the improvement pathway look like?

Two of the most important functions of a coach are to removing misconceptions and change inappropriate habits. These misconceptions and habits are different with each individual. Thus, in the diagnostic phase of coaching, we need to find out what the person knows that is true and what they know (and do) that is unhelpful.

People who are interested in strategic thinking always start with an existing base of knowledge about the field of strategy. They are not simply empty vessels to be filled with expertise. Some of their knowledge is valid, but some of their knowledge is invalid and the challenge reminds me of the quote by Will Rodgers,

It’s not what we don’t know that causes trouble. It’s what we know that ain’t so.

Probably the most significant misconception is that strategy is what is defined in a strategic plan, and is the mission, vision, and values of the organization. Strategy is a tailored response of resources and actions to meet a “core challenge.”

Thus, it’s better to tailor coaching to the existing knowledge of the learner.

All learners have strengths, and it is helpful to use them as foundation. For example, skill in risk analysis can be leveraged because risk analysis is a process of understanding cause and effect with the recognition that the effects appear in the future. A person who is competent at risk probably is comfortable with systems thinking and imaging the future, which are traits that are useful for strategic thinking.

Self Directed & Self-Paced Learning

Undoubtedly, individuals can pursue a self-directed course of study to improve their competency in strategic thinking.

I encourage all learners of strategic thinking to study examples.  Movies are a good choice that can be fun as well as instructive.  The movie that best portrays strategic thinking is Moneyball, but other good choices are 42, The Social Network, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and A Beautiful Mind.  You can find plenty of examples from historical and fictional characters, too.

Do you agree with these characteristics of competent strategic thinkers? What else should be added?

Intuition and Insight

Intuition InsightThe concepts of intuition and insight are similar in that they both are unconscious realizations that can guide strategic decision making. However, intuition and insight function differently and this leads to strengths and drawbacks in creating strategic action. Consider this question,

When should I lean on intuition and
when should I lean on insight for guidance in strategy?

This article will help you further refine your application of strategic thinking.

Intuition

Intuition is the ability to understand a situation immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning. Intuition comes from well-formed memories and is a type of expertise. Let’s consider an example:

Most of us know executives who have been with their firms for a long time and who understand how the business operates. When it comes to strategy, their style is typically informal and conversational.  Ideas are kicked around, and decisions are made.  These executives are right most of the time, and are typically venerated within the organization for their abilities.  When you ask them how they make their decisions, they unapologetically say that they have a feel or sixth sense for how things could work.

Wrong Applications

It fairly common for people to go to their bosses for an important decision. It’s also common for the boss to rely on intuition. The good news is that intuitive styles are very efficient and workable.

The bad news is that reliance on intuition often allows a person to discount external changes and ambiguities. Intuition to be inappropriate for the situation.

Because intuition is learned knowledge, it shares the same bed with habits. Often the intuition falters when the external situation changes as the habits of status quo hinder framing a new model of organizational performance.

Insight               

Whereas intuition comes from the activation of something you already know, insight is the discovery of new patterns or the reframing of patterns. As Gary Klein describes it, insight is the conversion of a mediocre story to a better story.

In my article, on 3Ms Post Its, I described an “aha moment” by co-inventor Art Fry who slaps his forehead and exclaims, “what we have here is a whole new way to communicate.” Post Its were not simply scrap paper coated with a weak adhesive, but a way to call attention to a document and create focused action (such as indicating where a signature is needed).

The example of Absolute Vodka at home parties in this article is particularly instructive on the nature of insight generation.  I this case, researchers collected data and studied with a trained eye. They looked for patterns and found that alcohol at home parties represents a different kind of social lubricant, not about status and taste but about individuality and humor.

How (and When) to Apply

Those readers familiar with Meyers-Briggs assessment of personality will probably recognize that  intuition and insight generally reflect the “N” intuitive thinking preference and the “S” sensing preference. Sometimes individual preferences become blind spots, so I’d argue that it an agile, flexible style of thinking is most appropriate.

Both insight and intuition use data and result in a conclusion. Generally speaking, insights tend to come more from external data or from use of models whereas intuition leans on personal learning and experiences.

Intuition is more subjective to the individual’s past experiences and training. We might want to consider the breadth of experience that person has. You might ask questions such as these: What is the source of intuition? What experiences are being applied? What parts of the experience are relevant to the current situation?

Insight leans more heavily on objective data. You might ask questions such as these: What is source of the insight?  What data is being applied?

Both intuition and insight are valuable. Intuition comes from experience, and can make for efficient decisions.  The big caveat is to make sure that the experience is relevant to the situation at hand. When you don’t have experience to lean on, you should work on capturing insights.

Thus, we continue to build a case for the importance of self-awareness and metacognition (awareness of your own thinking) as important elements of strategic thinking competency. We need to be on guard for “flow” and effortless management of situations, because strategy often involves things that are just outside of what we’ve chosen to notice.

Do you agree that the distinction between intuition and insight is important?

Two Case Studies in Strategic Thinking: Rick Pitino and Billy Beane

Pitino-BeaneThis article describes two well-known executives who changed strategic contexts: one used patterns and analogies well and was successful; the other didn’t. First we will examine the experience of Rick Pitino – an outstanding college basketball coach – who struggled with coaching in the NBA. Then we will examine how Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s used creative desperation and a healthy skepticism to rethink his managerial approach with the Moneyball-era Oakland A’s baseball team.

Rick Pitino: Patterns for College Strategy Do Not Translate to the NBA

As a college coach, Pitino had a won-loss record of 371-137, as of 1997, and won a national championship with the University of Kentucky. Pitino agreed to move to the professional ranks to become the GM and coach of the Boston Celtics. This move created a great deal of excitement for the Boston fans. Unfortunately all involved, the excitement and optimism turned to anger when the team failed to perform to expectations. With a record of 102-146, Pitino left to return to the college ranks midway through his third season, hugely unpopular.

What went wrong?  How could this great strategist fail?  In an article titled, “Lessons Learned (and Forgotten) from Celtics’ Failed Rick Pitino Experiment,” Grant Hughes writes,

“Pitino’s coaching style, just like the persona he employed in interviews, was very much “Rick-centric.” On the court, that meant he had to win on his own terms. The full-court presses and mass substitutions that led to so much success in college were going to define his Celtics teams, consequences be damned. Even when it became clear that the desired results of Pitino’s preferred style—forced turnovers, a fast pace, general chaos—weren’t leading to wins, the coach stuck stubbornly to his guns.

Hughes points out this key to success in the NBA: Players dictate strategy—not the other way around.  Antione Winfield, who played for Pitino at Kentucky and later at Boston reinforces the idea of patterning actions around players, observed in a different interview:

“What I noticed playing for Coach (Pitino) at that time, I think you have to be patient. I think if you look at Rick Pitino and what he did in that era, he traded probably thirty guys. “He’d sign guys and trade them right away. His patience level was so low. You have to be patient and you have to build something. You have to start with one or two guys and kind of build around them, and that’s a lot of things college coaches don’t want to do because they’re so used to winning at the collegiate level, at such a high level. When they’re winning 85, 86, 87 percent of their games, and then you get to the NBA level and it’s not the same.”

From a strategic thinking perspective, it seems like the problems are rooted in the patterns and context: basketball is different at the college level and at the professional level. The learning is to develop a sensitivity for patterns and context. Pitino perhaps suffered from what Gary Klein calls “passive stance” or what others call frame blindness.

The Coach’s Learning

Gary Washburn, writer for the Boston Globe interviewed Pitino. Looking back on the experience, Pitino says,

“The [fact of the] matter is I didn’t do a good enough job as an executive. It also taught me about wearing a lot of hats, focusing on what you can do. It was a class organization. They treated me great. I [had] nothing but great things to say about it when Brad [Stevens] got the job. It’s just that it didn’t work out for me, but it did work out for me because without the Celtics, I wouldn’t have learned all about failure and all about humility.”

Gary Washburn, offers this observation in the same article:

It taught Pitino he is better at convincing parents in a rural Kentucky home to allow their child to start his next phase of life at Louisville than crossing his fingers for good luck in the NBA draft lottery.

Billy Beane: Reinvents Himself, His Organization, and His Industry

Billy Beane, General Manager of professional baseball’s Oakland A’s, is now well known from the book and movie, Moneyball.  As a player, Beane played in the majors for several years with different teams, finally spending more time in the minor leagues than he cared for.  He chose to end his playing career in 1990 to take a job as an advance scout. In 1997, he was promoted to General Manager, taking over from Sandy Alderson. Using sabermetrics techniques, the team made baseball’s playoffs despite one of the lowest payrolls in the game. Beane completely reversed traditional wisdom about how to build a team, coming to the conclusion that scouts had no idea of what they were talking about, and looking for new statistically-based measures of productivity.

Beane was successful in part because he changed his own personal patterns. Says Sandy Alderson, who was the A’s General Manager and brought Beane into the organization, says in the Michael Lewis’ book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,

“What Billy figured out at some point was that he wanted to be more like me than like Jose Canseco.”  Addressing Beane’s change of mindset and patterns, Alderson said, “Billy shed every one of his player-type prejudices and adapted. Whereas most of the people like him would have said, ‘that’s not the way we did it when I played.

It’s instructive to note Beane’s own perspective,

“If baseball’s all you can do and you know that’s all you can do, it breed in you a certain creative desperation.”

As a concluding thought, it’s rather interesting that both men suffered a humiliation.  Beane’s was that of a player struggling in the major leagues, and being relegated to the rougher life of an aging minor-league player. Beane’s marriage also broke up at the same time he concluded his playing career. Pitino’s quote on learning humility from his Boston experience shows growth, and perhaps has helped him be more strategic as a person and a coach in his return to college ranks.

As a strategic thinker, you must have a sensitivity to patterns and context.  Too, perhaps much of journey to become more competent in thinking strategically might be in the way that you learn – and bounce back – from failures. Do you agree?

How to Improve Your Ability to Imagine the Future

how to improve your ability to imagine the futureStrategic thinking is a style of thinking that – among other things – is concerned about the future.  When done well, we could say that strategic thinking makes a person more “futures ready;” that is, having an attitude that is comfortable with change, anticipates change, and proactive with responses. Unfortunately, this futures-ready stance is not common. However, we can train people to be more futures ready. This article provides an approach that starts with the individual.

A Thought Experiment

Try out this exercise. Imagine yourself 15 years ago. The year is 1998.  Consider these questions:

  • In 1998 mobile phones were gaining widespread use. Could you have imagined how they would have taken over functions like time keeping, photography, and gaming?  Could you have imagined laws being promulgated to restrict texting while driving?
  • In 1998, would you have imagined that any of your friends or family would have died “before their time?” I can say – based on my own experience with a death of someone close to me – that it makes a lasting impression and causes a re-thinking of priorities.
  • In 1998, most babies in the US were born to parents married to each other.  Today, more are born to single women than to married parents. Would you have predicted that?
  • In 1998, could you have imagined these two economic slowdowns: the “dot com bust” and the “Great Recession?”
  • In 1998, would you have imagined a terrorist attack on US soil that would have changed the structure of government, airport security, and entry into sporting events? The scope and far-ranging impact of the 9/11 attacks has created all kinds of change to the daily life of Americans and others.

I have conducted the above thought experiment with many people, and note this pattern: the person realizes that the amount of change has been astounding.  One person called their experience with change, “jaw dropping.” These memories and reminiscences can be quite strong and stimulate some interesting conversations; but, the point is to get them to shift their thinking towards the future.

Now, some readers would answer the thought experiment with this response, “Sure, I could have imagined this.”  However, you probably didn’t. You were probably concerned with the joys and problems of your life at that moment in time. You were (and are) probably like most people: you the present time is your reality. It is concrete, whereas the future is an abstraction that gets little of your attention.

After looking 15 years into the past, I next ask them to imagine 15 years into the future. If I want to really stimulate their imagination (or aggravate them), I ask them to imagine as much “jaw dropping change” for the future as they recall for the past. This is difficult, and requires encouragement.

Most people think tomorrow will be more of today. They develop views of the future that linear extrapolations of the current condition.

Let’s put the 15-year span into perspective. Home mortgages are typically 15 or 30 years.  Some people own their cars for 15 years and are even wearing the same suits and shoes. Fifteen years is the lifespan of a family dog. Those examples show us that 15 is an understandable span of time.

One common pattern is that people — looking back in time –often refer to the passage of time as a “blink” or “time flies.” However, when looking into the future, people tend to discount how fast it will arrive.  This asymmetry tells us that it is tough to be “futures ready.”

Envisioning the Future – Start With Some Easy Questions

The following questions are about the future, and have answers that require only a bit of arithmetic and imagination. Write down your answers to these questions.

  1. What is your age in the year 2028?  Imagine your parents or grandparents at that age and their physical and mental health? How old will your children be?
  2. How many years has your organization (employer) been in business in 2028?

Expand your answers with some written words or images. Linger on this description, engaging your intuition; does it feel right? Then try to look at that future with a different perspective and consider other questions that might help you with envisioning.

Trends – Useful but Remember the Wildcard Scenario

Invariably, the discussion of the future brings in trends and forecasting, so go ahead and make note of the them. The typical list includes: climate change, wearable technology, population growth, nations that we now consider developing are fully developed, more weapons (international and domestic), and more globally-interconnected communications.

Futurists recommend that any futures-ready view include a “wild card scenario.”  Consult the above thought experiment placing you in the year 1998: terrorist attacks and the Great Recession might qualify as wildcards: extraordinary events that might be difficult to anticipate but have far-ranging effects.  Here are a two ideas for wildcards that could disrupt life as we now know it: pandemics and a large meteor strike.

Delight and Disaster Scenarios

Here is one more exercise for your imagination. Imagine two futures. One is optimistic and wonderful. It is the ideal world.  The second scenario is one that is more pessimistic.  Explore what that scenario is like for you personality, your organization, and your network of friends, family, and social organizations. Emphasize the impact of the scenario, rather than the probability of occurrence.

Recognize How Status Quo Becomes a  Barrier

Earlier I noted that people don’t do as well with future imaginings compared to past rememberings.

One reason is that  people tend to remember things that are recent, concrete, and salient. This is often referred to as the  anchoring bias.  A second reason is that the future is ambiguous and people tend to be ambiguity avoiders. People prefer to think and talk about things that they have evidence for, and avoid things that don’t.

What is most real? The present. This shows up as status quo thinking. Recognize it as a barrier, and apply both imagination and analysis to developing a view of the future.

Expanding the Future

These thought experiments add value to your strategic thinking because they place patterns and ideas into your memory. Your subconscious  works with these concepts by recognizing patterns and producing insights.

What other ideas do you have for helping individuals become more “futures ready?”