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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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?

Chess, Patterns, Analogy, and Strategic Thinking (Part 2)

Patterns & Strategic ThinkingSuccess in the game of chess is based on principles that apply in other strategic thinking situations (as introduced in the prior article in this series).

Patterns as Essential Element of Strategy

The focus of this article is further developing the concept of patterns in strategy, I will return to the example of chess introduced in the prior article. Patterns are a common element of all strategic situations.

Adriaan de Groot concludes, in his research on chess mastery (see the Wikipedia entry), that:

“it is the ability to recognize patterns, which are then memorized, which distinguished the skilled players from the novices.”

These two distinguishing characteristics – pattern recognition and memory – are relevant to strategic thinking in any domain, not just chess.  My straightforward recommendation for improving your strategic thinking is to develop your ability to recognize and learning patterns.

Recognizing Patterns              

Chess is a game of patterns with colorful names like the Catalan Opening, the Sicilian Defense and the King’s Indian Attack. These patterns -albeit jargon – help chess players improve their game strategy.

Patterns are easily observed in other strategic contexts. In business, strategists have knowledge of patterns like double-entry accounting, the CAP-M financial model, and Porter’s Five Forces of industry attractiveness. The game of American football has colorful names for patterns such as the flying wedge, the wishbone, goal line stands, and red zones. The US Army has an offensive operation known as Envelopment which was used with great success at the opening of the Desert Storm operation in Kuwait in 1990. Notice that each domain (or strategic context) has its own patterns (and jargon); doesn’t it make sense that mastery involves the ability to recognize a pattern within a domain?

Memorizing Patterns

Next, let’s examine the importance of Adriaan de Groot’s finding that chess experts have an ability to memorize the patterns in such a way that they can then access the memory and apply it to the game. Stated simply, chess masters learn and apply information about chess patterns just as people in other contexts learn and apply patterns.

Most people have practiced rote memorization, and know that they need to keep the task simple. Further, they need to reinforce with repetition to put it into long-term memory (think about experiences with multiplication table drills). In chess, rote memorization of the rules is a starting point. Rote memorization falls apart when we have to apply those rules to strategic situations.

(See the “sidebar” at the bottom of this post for an interesting examination how IBM’s Deep Blue computer bested Gary Kasparov – and its implications for strategic thinking.)

Through the work of David Ausubel others, academics now widely agree that people learn new things by associating new knowledge with related and already-known knowledge. Children learn letters, then words, then sentences. Knowledge is built up from simple to complex. Memory becomes a cognitive structure of related patterns.

Using Ausubel’s constructivist approach, we can theorize that chess players first learn a few patterns, establishing a basic cognitive structure. Then the player adds to the cognitive structure. At some point they reach mastery, and hold a rich and robust scaffold of knowledge.

The player progressively gains expertise as they add new knowledge to cognitive structure. They find that the new information helps them to refine, sharpen, and correct existing ideas.

Chunking is another concept of memory that is especially helpful for short-term memory and for moving concepts from short-term memory into long-term memory. For example, telephone numbers have chunks of digits that we know as country codes, area codes, exchange codes, and phone numbers. As a learning strategy, look for chunks of knowledge.

Neuroscientist Daniel Bor says there are three activities involved in chunking. The first is the search for chunks. The second is the noticing and memorizing of those chunks. The third is the use of the chunks we’ve already built up.

Consider chunks as a gateway to patterns:

Patterns are a tool for chunking memory.
And chunks are a tool for organizing patterns.

It seems that the quantity and quality of patterns in memory is a key to opportunity recognition, and therefore strategic thinking. It is fair to say that within each domain (warfare, chess, business, etc.) there are many patterns. The goal is to organize and structured knowledge in such a way that the brain can access the memory for patterns. This gives the person the ability to quickly match the pattern and find what is interesting.

How? Use chunking to commit some early patterns to memory, probably through some sort of rote learning or a simple analogy or a mnemonic. Further enrich them with examples. Now, practice scaffolding – working through analogy to relate new patterns to old patterns.

As an additional suggestion for memory, patterns, and culture, check out my description of Kolb’s learning cycle in this post.

Conclusion – Questions for Practical Application of Concepts

The game of chess provides a starting point for identifying some of the fundamentals of strategic thinking. In this article, I identified patterns as a generic element of all strategies, and discussed how the strategist recognizes patterns and memorizes them.

Are you alert for patterns? Do you practice analogies? Could you list the most important and essential patterns associated with your organization? Do you try to falsify your knowledge and strategies?

Do you agree that the ability to apprehend patterns and comprehend patterns is important to strategic thinking?

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Sidebar:

On Chess Patterns and the True Nature of Intelligence

In 1997, IBM’s supercomputer “Deep Blue” defeated chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov in a highly publicized six-game match. Are there implications for the study of strategic thinking? Beating Kasparov was an engineering feat, not  a breakthrough in strategic thinking. Deep Blue was programmed in a way that is akin to rote memory rather than the generation of insights. James Somers points out:

“Deep Blue won by brute force. For each legal move it could make at a given point in the game, it would consider its opponent’s responses, its own responses to those responses, and so on for six or more steps down the line. With a fast evaluation function, it would calculate a score for each possible position, and then make the move that led to the best score. What allowed Deep Blue to beat the world’s best humans was raw computational power. It could evaluate up to 330 million positions a second while Kasparov could evaluate only a few dozen before having to make a decision.

It’s hard to make the case that a computer has exercised an intelligence that we could call humanistic or strategic. Deep Blue simply recognized patterns and matched them against a repository of patterns.  Perhaps we could say that it generated insights, but those insights were of low quality compared to what humans can do (for examples, see my articles on insight generation by the inventors of 3M’s Post It notes or the field researchers for Absolut Vodka).

The above quote was from an article titled “The Man Who Would Teach Machines to Think” in the November 2013 issue of Atlantic Magazine. The “man” referenced in Somers’ article is Pulitzer Prize winning author Douglas Hofstadter, who won for his book Godel Escher Bach in 1980.  Hofstadter says that the fluid nature of mental categories is the core of human intelligence. Somers’ article quotes Hofstadter and explains,

“Cognition is recognition,” he likes to say. He describes “seeing as” the essential cognitive act: you see some lines as “an A,” you see a hunk of wood as “a table,” you see a meeting as “an emperor-has-no-clothes situation” and a friend’s pouting as “sour grapes” and a young man’s style as “hipsterish” and on and on throughout your day.

Hofstadter suggests that thinking and learning is mostly a process of forming analogies: something reminds you of something that reminds you of yet something else. Mental categories are the way that we organize the knowledge structure.

We’ve all had conversations like where the overall direction of the conversation is set by the way that each person’s recollections are stimulated by something that another said: We hear something and say, “that reminds me of _____ .” We make the connection – have an insight – and the conversation continues. Not surprisingly, strategy is developed through conversation. Initially, the conversations in organizations are about sharing each person’s sense of the situation and the solution to others.  The agreement of the stakeholders is the “buy in.”

The practical advice for the strategic thinker: become more aware of your use of analogies. How is one strategic situation (pattern) similar and different from another?  Watch for a future article that about two well-known CEO’s who changed strategic contexts: one used patterns and analogies well and was successful; the other didn’t.

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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 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?”

How to Use the 4Ps to Capture Future Scenarios: Thinking Strategically

How to Capture The Future

Strategic thinking involves thinking imaginatively about the future. It enables the strategist(s) to articulate answers to two questions,”What are the things that might happen in the future? And, what is the realistic future state that I desire?

Strategic Foresight

Richard Slaughter defines strategic foresight:

Strategic foresight is the ability to create and maintain a high-quality, coherent and functional forward view and to use the insights arising in organizationally useful ways. It represents a fusion of futures methods with those of strategic management.

 Strategic foresight is a sub-discipline of strategic thinking, and it can help you develop answers to those two questions. Strategic foresight not crystal ball gazing (prediction), it is about discerning factors that create the future and describing alternate futures. Why? The purpose is practical: generate insights about the future so that the strategist can make better present-day choices.

The 4Ps

There are four broad categories of futures, the 4Ps: they are the possible, plausible, probable, and preferred futures. (There is a 5th P, potential futures, where the strategist applies unbounded imagination and extends the vision into realms that are best termed fantasy.) Ideally, we approach the 4Ps in the order suggested in the nearby graphic.

The strategist should begin with the possible future with the goal of developing a broad understanding of the situation.  Now is the time to consider “wild card” scenarios or “black swan” events. Divergent thinking (as opposed to convergent thinking) and an expeditionary mindset are appropriate styles of thinking.

  • Questions to Ask: What is the most radically-different unbounded future that I can imagine? What is the best and the worst case?  What is strange, weird, and crazy? Might it happen?
  • Answer to Expect:  Yes, the scenario might happen.

Next, she narrows into plausible future states (those which are “seemingly or apparently valid, likely, or acceptable; credible”). Convergent thinking is used.  An important idea for this is to consider the “narrative arc” of the organization or situation.

  • Questions to Ask: Which future states are feasible, given what we know at present? What would have to happen for this state to arise? How does this future state mesh with the founding mission of the organization and the values of the founders and other stakeholders? Could it happen?
  • Answer to Expect:  Yes, the scenario is plausible.

The third of the 4Ps is the probable future.  The strategic thinker is getting increasingly more analytical and applying systems thinking (being systematic in thinking is one of the four qualities of strategic thinking).  Here, she considers causal factors, delays, and weighting for the contribution of the causal factors to the emerging outcome.

  • Questions to Ask: Which events (that would cause this future) are is most likely?  What other events need to happen, too?  Where can we get data to support our assumptions? How likely is this future to happen?
  • Answer to Expect:  We have a systematic understanding of what would cause each scenario, and an estimate of the probabilities.

The fourth P is the preferred future state.  We can influence our future.  We can find the performance gaps and create strategic initiatives to close the gap.

  • Questions to Ask: What future do I prefer? What choices should I make about scope, objectives, and advantage? (See this article for more on those three elements.) What do I want to happen?
  • Answer to Expect:  This is the scenario that most fits my ambitions and expectations.

Cautions About the Preferred Future

The flow of attention described – possible to plausible to probable to preferred futures – is an ideal. It’s difficult to practice because it starts with imaginative and ambiguous scenarios.

It’s easier for people to start with stating a preferred future. However, that is problematic because the alternatives are feasible and occasionally do occur. You can’t be proactive if haven’t considered the future that you are pro-acting to.  As difficult as it may seem, the strategic thinker will consider alternative futures.

In those organizations that have established and mature process, people often hold unexamined assumptions is that the future will resemble the present. This is a status quo bias, and we see the results continually in firms that have been unable to respond to technology or social trends: film-based photography, newspapers, and bricks-and-mortar retailers of videocassettes to name just a few.

Aspirational visioning is common. Consider a large publically-traded company in agribusiness, a very mature business.  The CEO had seen a presentation on Red Ocean Blue Ocean strategy (The blue ocean is a new wide-open market where you don’t have to fight it out with competitors).  He challenged the Presidents of all of his business units to grow substantially in the next five years. People made some attempts to dream big ideas, but it the goal was soon forgotten as day-to-day operations reasserted their priority. Masked by the “great recession,” the company missed signals that its markets were fundamentally changing. The company ultimately shrank in size!

When managers move quickly to the preferred future, they often make the mistake of confusing the goal for a strategy. Note what UCLA’s Richard Rumelt says about this in his book, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy. He writes,

“Executives who complain about execution problems have usually confused strategy with goal setting. When the “strategy process is basically a game of setting performance goals – so much market share and so much profit, so many students graduating high schools, so many visitors to the museum – then there remains a yawning gap between these ambitions and action.  Strategy is about how an organization will move forward. Doing strategy is figuring out how to advance the organization’s interests. Of course, a leader can set goals and delegate to others the job of figuring out what to do. But that is not strategy. If that is how the organization runs, let’s skip the spin and be honest – call it goal setting.”

By examining the futures in the more rigorous way espoused here – possible, plausible, probable, and then preferred – the strategist increases the likelihood that they are considering real organizational issues that deserve attention and resources. Too, the act of generating alternatives increases the prospects of finding the insights that are necessary for a brilliant strategy.  As practical advice, consider increasing the amount of effort in strategic foresight, and then distributing your time in this way:

  • Possible Futures – 15%
  • Plausible and Probable Futures – 60%
  • Preferred Futures – 25%

You should iterate through versions of the plausible and probable futures.  You might want to occasionally relook the possible futures to see if they might be better categorized as plausible so as to avoid a blind spot.  Too, revisiting the possible futures might cause you to see a strategic driver in a new way.Strategic Thinking Definition

Remember that the definition of strategic thinking is not simply about imaging a future, it is doing with the intent of being better off in the future. Although this could be dismissed as “just a creative exercise,” it has the potential of sparking important creative insights necessary for building a good strategy.

How have you applied the 4Ps to your development of strategy?