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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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?