How to Develop a Perspective: Core Challenges and Strategic Thinking

Individual perspective is a foundation of strategic thinking. Perspective is more than a switchable point of view. It is an organizing framework that helps articulate an understanding of the core challenge that is the essential cause for developing strategy.

As you build your strategic thinking competency, the best way to develop a useful perspective for strategy development is to start with yourself. Don’t be concerned with strategy; be concerned with your own personal story and experiences. You already have a personal perspective, but if I asked you to put it into words, you would probably struggle.  Here are six suggestions that might help you find those words:

  1. You could make a list of things that have influenced you. It could include books, public speeches, movies, and mentors.
  2. What life experiences have influenced you? I believe that a personal perspective shares much with the concept of your life’s story, the way that you conceive of where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going.
  3. What has traumatized you in the past? In particular, I find interesting the presence of near-death experiences. We can make the argument that Christopher Columbus’ survival of a pirate attack and shipwreck in 1476 was a turning point in his life. Before then, he was a seafaring adventurer but afterwards we can see that he really started to grasp the strategic concepts that would lead to his endeavor to gain resources to sail west. Near death experiences can provide a compelling sense of clarity – that is, perspective – to people. Consider this report cited in USA Today in an article on CEOs and near-death experiences:

Last June [2008], management consultant Grant Thornton surveyed 250 CEOs of companies with revenue of $50 million or more. Twenty-two percent said they have had an experience when they believed they would die and, of those, 61% said it changed their long-term perspective on life or career. Forty-one percent said it made them more compassionate leaders; 16% said it made them more ambitious; 14% said it made them less ambitious.

Regardless of whether you have had a near-death experience and/or trauma, I believe that you can use your imagination to consider your perspective about what is important and what is not.

  1. What is your personal brand or elevator speech? A personal brand is represents the way that you think about yourself and how you want others to think about you.
  2. What is your sense of moral righteousness? Branch Rickey, the General Manager/Owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers is best remembered for his role in integrating Major League Baseball by bringing its first black ballplayer, Jackie Robinson, into the League. He said that he remembered how a black college teammate was mistreated, and felt that this was a wrong that needed to be righted. Besides, he wanted to do anything he could to field winning ball team.
  3. Do you have any skepticism about “the system” and prevailing wisdom. Perhaps you are offended or annoyed by traditions and the establishment. As an example, Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland A’s Baseball team (and of Moneyball fame) carried with him a skepticism about the ability of scouts to accurately judge baseball talent. When he was told to win with a radically reduced payroll, his perspective likely contributed greatly to his practice of strategic thinking.

Again, use this list as a starting point for articulating your personal perspective.

The Strategist’s Perspective

The next step is to develop that perspective in light of your need to develop strategy. Note the nearby graphic. It starts with a statement that brings more focus to “a courageous and commonsense view of the competitive challenge.” This statement seems adequately descriptive of the situation that strategic thinkers like Louis Gerstner, Estee Lauder, and Christopher Columbus confronted.  It suggests some general principles of a good perspective on strategy

  • Value is found in contrarian Time and again, we see great accomplishments in taking a contrarian perspective different from than the prevailing wisdom.
    • Courage is distinctive characteristic of many strategic thinkers
  • The perspective is coherent.
    • As NVIDIA’s co-founder Jensen Huang said, “Our perspective was commonsense.”
  • It is contextualized to address the unique nuances of the situation.
    • It acknowledges the challenge facing the individual or the organization, especially regarding competitive posture and advantage.

Contrarian Coherent ContextualizedA Dance: Perspective and the Core Challenge

A core challenge is a single challenge (or a cluster of related challenges) that holds significance for the individual’s or the organization’s future success. Strategy is the designed response to a core challenge. Often people are so busy trying to solve the problems that face them that they don’t bother to think about the problem; more specifically, people spend insufficient time defining the problem. People avoid thinking about and confronting problems that are unpleasant and require action.

I’ve often asked people, “What is your core challenge? or What do you Want to be Different?” Unfortunately, the answers often show little depth of understanding.

Thus, we might have chicken-and-egg situation where it’s pointless to worry about what to do first.  The path forward, I suggest, is to simultaneously consider the two questions of perspective and core challenge. Strive to make progress and deepen your understanding of both.  As you do so, insights will emerge and you’ll move closer to understanding the strategy that best fits your situation.

Can you articulate your strategic perspective and core challenge?

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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?

Strong-Minded Thinkers find the “One Thing:” How Curly’s Advice Applies to Thinking Strategically

The 1991 movie Cityslickers provides a great lesson for strategists on the vital topic of focus and provides an excellent introduction to strong-mindedness.

Actor Billy Crystal plays the role of Mitch Robbins, a 39-year old man with a mid-life crisis. Mitch and his two friends take a trip to a Western US dude ranch, where they will participate in a cattle drive. Jack Palance plays the role of Curly, the tough cowboy who will supervise the cattle drive.

Mitch and Curly do not like each other at first. However, as they spend time together, Mitch discovers that Curly is wise to life. In this important scene, the two are riding through canyons, talking:

 Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [points index finger skyward] This.

Mitch: Your finger?

Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean shit.

Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”

Curly[smiles and points his finger at Mitch] That’s what you have to find out.

There you have it! The secret to life is to find the one thing that you need to stick to. It’s a line of dialogue that provides profound advice for those who want to become strong minded and improve their strategic thinking skills.

Before exploring examining what finding the one thing means in the sense of thinking strategically, let’s explain how Mitch discovered his “one thing:”

Curly and Mitch must deliver a pregnant cow’s calf. Mitch names the calf Norman and informally adopts it. The final test of the drive involves crossing a dangerous river during a violent storm. The men successfully drive most of the herd across the river, except for Norman, who is caught up in the river’s rapid current. Mitch impulsively chases after him, successfully lassoing the calf, but in turn gets caught in the rapids, nearly drowning. All are saved. Then, Mitch reveals that during his dangerous struggle to save Norman, he realized his “one thing” is his family.

The sweet and sentimental part of the story is that Mitch’s one thing was his family, and he returned from his trip with a renewed sense of values. This is not uncommon in Hollywood movies, Mary Poppins being another example of a husband/father gaining perspective of the importance of family.

Insights and Strong Mindedness

Mitch’s realization of his one thing came by way of insight, and it came to him as he faced extreme danger. As I have explained in earlier articles, insights are sudden realizations of the true nature of something. The purpose of strategic thinking is to foster insights.

Now, here is the connection to strong mindedness.  If a person can find that insight of the one thing AND act upon it determinedly, we can say that they are strong minded.  People who lack this strong mindedness either are missing the insight that reveals their personal values and/or the determination to put the values into action. Both ingredients need to be present. I’m not saying it is easy, but it doesn’t need to be a grandly-sophisticated endeavor.

Consider this a definition of strong-mindedness:

The ability to stay true to important principles.

Strong Mindedness as a Pre-Requisite for Strategic Thinking

It seems to me that strong mindedness is something of a pre-requisite for strategic thinking, and the personal values and determination are the result of ambition. Strategic thinkers must become comfortable with ambiguity and conceptualizing, something that often does not come easy.

In an earlier article, I identified Christopher Columbus as a strategic thinker. He had little formal schooling, and his ambition and insights were at the core of his success.  I could point to other successful historical people – Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford – as individuals who we could characterize were foremost strong minded and ambitious. I believe that these individual had to think strategically simply as an outlet for their ambitions.

Strategy and the Focus on Success

Curly’s advice to find the one thing is simply as way of emphasizing the importance of focus.

In the book Competitive Strategy, Michael Porter explains that focus has two meanings. One meaning is the organization’s power – its advantages – is focused on the right target. Again, Curley’s wisdom is simple: find the one thing. Here is where many organizations get into trouble: the say the “one thing” is profit, or cost containment, or growth.  These are all lagging indicators of performance: they are not the causes.

Thus, a strategist needs to appreciate Porter’s other meaning of focus. It has to with the way that economic power is created through coordination of actions (policies) that interact and overlap in ways that provide power over competitors. When we are talking about business strategy, we are really talking about the acumen of understanding how value is created, for which I will provide two examples:

  • Steve Jobs of Apple Computer relentlessly focused the organization on workable and elegant product designs. Apple did this better than its competitors, and its success has been legendary.
  • Sam Walton of Wal-Mart recognized opportunity in serving the rural retail market with everyday low-prices stores. Instead of copying the best practices of larger competitors like K-Mart, he focused his organization on supply chain policies and resources that redefined the concept of the store as a network

Organizational Strong Mindedness

Reiterating earlier points in this series of articles, good strategic thinkers are the source of insights that foster good strategies. To leverage the talents of individuals, organizations need to allow or encourage the sharing of insights and ideas.

In the organizational setting, strong mindedness is the ability to identify a focal point for success, and maintain attention to that focal point. Strategy is about focus and the application of leverage. The question for the strategist is, what is the “one thing” that is most important for my organization’s future success?

Shunryu Suzuki, a popularizer of Zen philosophy in the United States said, “The most important thing it to find out what is the most important thing.” How have you applied focus in your strategic thinking?

How to Develop Strategic Insights

christopher columbus strategic thinker

Strategic thinking involves thinking about the future in a purposeful kind of way; that is, to generate useful insights that guide present-day choices. Presently, data analytics and statistical forecasting is popular, but I want to focus on generating insights, which usually come to the individual subconsciously.

 

Christopher Columbus: Strategic Thinker

Let’s imagine ourselves shadowing Christopher Columbus prior to 1492. As a naturally curious person, he gained knowledge for winds and currents and seamanship from his experiences sailing the Mediterranean, North Atlantic, and West Africa.  He read many books on astronomy, geography, and history and made hundreds of marginal notations in them. He  collected and interpreted data in the light of his personal ambitions.

History tell us little about Columbus’s reasoning. Regardless of the historical record, at some point in time Columbus developed the insight that he could use the Easterlies (trade winds off the coast of Africa that move from East to West) to sail westward, and then return to Europe via the Westerlies.

Christopher Columbus was a strategic thinker who took an abstract and unproven idea and proved it was true.

Andy Grove’s Strategic Decision

Consider Intel chairman Andy Grove’s story of how he came up with an important business strategy.  Attending a management seminar, Grove heard the story of how fledgling “mini-mills” in the steel industry began in the 1970s to offer a low-end product—inexpensive concrete-reinforcing bars known as rebar that subsequently gave them the entry to dominate the industry once dominated by integrated steel makers like U.S. Steel.  Grove saw that Intel was sitting in a similar situation: its dominance of its industry could be disrupted by allowing niche players in its industry to take the low-end part of the market.

“If we lose the low end today,” Grove realized, “we could lose the high end tomorrow.”  At Groves’ insistence, Intel redoubled its efforts to develop and market the low-end “Celeron processor” for the emerging personal computer market.

Openness to Fringe Data and Dissent

Grove had an abundance of data from Intel about its production, its production plans, market demand, and profitability of Intel’s various product lines. He and his team easily could have used that data to frame its strategic plans.  Indeed, that is very common for strategy setting by most firms.

Grove used analogy in his reasoning process: How is “A” like “B?” or “How are chips like steel?” One answer is that they are similar in that both have low-margin commodity-like grades and high-value engineered grades.

The insight is particularly remarkable in that Grove considered data from outside his industry.

Indeed, I meet many managers who say something like “Our industry is unique” when in reality there are more commonalities than differences. The statement, “we’re unique” establishes an excuse for close-mindedness and learning. They fall into a trap of where their belief system causes them to filter out contradictory information.

The openness to new ideas – from anywhere – reveals new explanations and possibilities.  Strategic thinking incorporates much of the characteristics of creative thinking; for example, both make considerable use analogies.

Strategic thinking is different because of its emphasis on the future and on success, particularly in the crafting of strategies that give the strategist an advantage over others.

Insights – Start With These Four Questions 

In my experience, insights come from posing and answering questions. 

When thinking about the future, it is useful to consider the answers to these four questions:

  • What data and evidence about the past, present, and future do I choose to consider (and to ignore)?
  • What seems to be happening?
  • What is really happening?
  • What might happen?

Strategists employ strategic thinking to generate about the future, but taking the context of the present and the past into consideration. How can you use strategic foresight to enhance your strategic thinking capability?