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.

Three Strategic Thinking Characteristics

Strategic Thinking Image over Kalidescope over streaming

What are the characteristics people who think strategically? Are there elements of their personality that facilitates their use of strategic thinking?

Curiosity, ambition, and pragmatism (CAP) are three important traits of strategic thinkers. These traits do not define strategic thinking nor strategic thinkers, but they provide a form of energy that motivates them to acquire and practice effective strategic thinking.

Curiosity

Strategic thinkers are intellectually curious.  They ask questions in purposeful kinds of ways.  Here are a few quotes that illustrate curiosity as a trait of strategic thinkers.

  • “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” Albert Einstein
  • “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” Walt Disney
  • “I have never read for entertainment, but rather for understanding and to satisfy my eager curiosity.” Bryant H. McGill

Ambition

Strategic thinking is hard work for most in that thinking strategically takes people out of their comfort zone. The ambition of the individual is a driving force in overcoming the status quo. Here are just a few quotes by accomplished people on the importance of ambition:

  • “Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings.” Salvador Dali
  • “Ambition is the path to success. Persistence is the vehicle you arrive in.” Bill Bradley
  •  “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.” Abraham Lincoln
  •  “If the leader is filled with high ambition and if he pursues his aims with audacity and strength of will, he will reach them in spite of all obstacles.” Karl Von Clausewitz

Pragmatism

Pragmatism is more than simply being “practical.” Pragmatism is the balance of action with reflection, as I explained in this article, action without thought is impulsiveness and thought without action is procrastination. Pragmatism is concerned with innovation and it is concerned with what works.

Pragmatism says to the prior two factors of ambition and curiosity, “Don’t go overboard. Keep perspective.”

For example, unmitigated ambition can be dangerous. Many tyrants and despots have the ambition for power, but not the ethical framework to apply their power for a higher-order principle.

Curiosity, too, can be taken to an unproductive extreme. Some people are nothing more than dreamers, accomplishing little. We want to strive for a balancing of thought and action. Consider this quote from the musician Bono.

  •  “You see, idealism detached from action is just a dream. But idealism allied with pragmatism, with rolling up your sleeves and making the world bend a bit, is very exciting. It’s very real. It’s very strong.” Bono

Pragmatism tempers the tendency to get lost in conceptualizing and moralizing. It adds purposefulness to dreaming.

Do you agree that ambition, curiosity, and pragmatism are three traits of strategic thinkers?

Strategic Thinking Defined

Strategic Thinking Image over KalidescopeStrategic thinking is defined as the individual’s capacity for thinking conceptually, imaginatively, systematically, and opportunistically with regard to the attainment of success in the future.

Let’s unpack this definition. There are six elements of strategic thinking:

Success Oriented. The word “success” needs to be considered in the context of the usual meaning of the word strategy; that is, some field of competition where the strategy exploits advantage and leads to a desirable outcome for the strategist. For example, success in a game involves winning within the boundaries of a set of game rules.  Success in a military encounter might define the victor as the entity who holds the field at the conclusion of the battle. Success in business might be defined as penetrating a new market. Success in a political campaign might be defined as winning a referendum or elected office.  Consider this: if there is no competition, there is no need for strategy.

Richard Rumult (Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, page 127) tells us that strategy involves premeditation, anticipation of the reactions of others, and the design of coordinated action.

Success is the consequence of a strategy.  Thus, strategic thinking involves considering questions such as, What are the causes of success? What is the best way to design a strategy to fit the situation?

Aside from the idea of competition, it is fair to assert that the definition of success is influenced by context, particularly of the stakeholder. Success could be determined as betterment over the existing situation.

As a practical matter, the strategic thinker needs to address fundamental question such as, Who (and what) defines success? What metrics are in use? Notice that the opinions of individual stakeholders are relevant, so  the strategist needs to consider questions such as these:  Whose opinion is most important?

Future Oriented. Strategic thinking involves looking towards the future with an appreciation that present-moment decisions will have impact on the future. The future may be very different from the status quo. Strategic thinking must consider the outputs of what is commonly called “futurology” or “strategic foresight.” A strategic thinker takes into account the past and present, as part of the inputs for considering the future.

Cognitive. Strategic thinking employs mental process that are conceptual (abstractions, using analogy to translate across contexts), systematic (composed of different components with interfaces that interact to produce intended or emergent behaviors, pattern finding, and connecting situations that are not obviously related), imaginative (creative and visual), and opportunistic (searching for and grasping new information and value propositions).  The strategic thinker applies all of these cognitive processes in the orientation towards future success.

What Strategic Thinking is Not….

  • Strategic thinking is not the same thing as critical thinking. Although critical thinking is conceptual and systematic; experience shows that critical thinkers are less likely to be imaginative and opportunistic. Critical thinking can be a useful part of strategic thinking, but many critical thinkers are unable to think strategically; for example, designing a strategy to prevail over a competitor.
  • Strategic thinking is not the same thing as creative thinking. Creative thinking is imaginative and playful. Typically, creative thinking attends to a lesser degree to concepts, systems, and opportunities. However, creative thinking exercises often place no attention on the future success orientation. Creative thinking can also be a useful component of strategic thinking, but they are not identical. Again, strategic thinking involves designing a strategy to prevail over competitors; that is not something we naturally consider in creative thinking.
  • Strategic thinking is not the same thing as visionary thinking.  Visionary thinking is often simply dreaming big with the intention of inspiring others to adopt the vision. While visions might be useful, they need to be balanced with realism, data, and insights as to how to achieve the dream.  Strategic thinking involves a deeper level of conceptualizing – compared to visionary thinking – because the outcome that is envisions will only be achieved through creating and executing a strategy.
  • Strategic thinking is not the same thing as strategic planning or long-range planning. Many have experienced strategic planning or long-range planning as attaching words to the organization’s annual budget. Still other writers refer to the front end of structured business planning processes as strategic thinking, but that implies that the same action would apply to other fields where strategy is practiced: politics, military, sports, games, etc. Frankly, this is just sloppy reasoning on their part.  Organizations create strategies to achieve success, and the process of doing this is often termed strategic planning. However, as the paragraphs below point out, strategic thinking is an individual activity to be harnesses by group processes. Strategic thinking produces insights, which become inputs to the strategic planning process. The practice of strategic thinking by the individual may inform strategic choices and decisions.

Only Individuals Can Practice Strategic Thinking

Any kind of thinking is governed by the mind, or more specifically the brain.  Commonsense tells us that individuals – even people who are genetically identical – think differently and have different learned responses to coping with the world around them.

It follows from that reasoning that organizations do not practice strategic thinking because there is no single brain or mind at work. Thus, strategic thinking refers to an individual’s style of thinking.

The transition of individual thinking style to organizational process is this:

Organizations are collections of personalities that share some common purposes and culture. Individuals within the organization collaborate by surfacing  each individual’s thinking and sharing that those insights with others. Thus, thinking is an individual cognitive capability that generates insights and collaboration is a social process of merging and adapting those insights to meet a strategic challenge.

Individual Strategic Thinking and the Organizational Capacity for Strategy

Organizations intending on improving strategy should start with the previous section: the recognition that individuals are the practitioners of strategic thinking. Here is a three-pronged approach:

1. The organization should improve individual in strategic thinking competency. This could be done by training or coaching executives, high-potential employees, and those individuals who express interest in contributing to strategy.

2. It should create a cadre of individuals with competency in strategic thinking.

3. It should emphasize collaboration in its strategic planning process. This collaboration is multifaceted: up, down, and sideways in the organization.  The focal point of this collaboration is on identifying insights and sharing/combining/exploiting those insights with resources to achieve competitive advantage.

Each individual has a different set of experiences and perspectives.  The challenge is to bring together the experiences and perspectives – and individual insights – into a synthesized understanding of the situation and the need for coordinated actions.

Do you agree with the definitions and distinctions?