Strategic Thinkers Approach Prediction Differently

Nothing More Dangerous VisionariesIt’s a common New Year’s Eve activity for pundits to look back over the past year, offering speculations about the future. You don’t have to look far to find a prediction of candidates for US President, winners of sporting events, or Apple’s next product announcement. Although these predictions entertain us, belief in their accuracty can lull a person into complacency.

Since (by definition), strategic thinking is focused on success in the future, a competent strategic thinker is interested in the future. The strategic thinker approaches forecasts and predictions with caution. The belief in prediction is wishful; there is not one path the future. Instead, there are countless possible future states. On the other hand, attempting to analyze the countless possible future is inefficient and frustrating.

Many readers have heard of a technique called scenario writing. It’s a good starting point for emphasizing the importance of considering shapes, structures, evidence, and uncertainty as fundamentals of foresight. This contrasts with big dreams, linear timelines and events.

The first step is to selecting two significant sources of uncertainty. The second step is arranging them into a cross to create a 2×2 matrix (of four quadrants). Each quadrant is a scenario. The third step is writing a narrative that answering the question, What events and structures would cause to that particular scenario and what would be your response if the scenario came to be?

An Example: What might be the future of strategic thinking?

I’m a stakeholder in the question of strategic thinking.  I want my efforts in coaching and teaching strategic thinking to reach an audience and have an impact. What might the “future of strategic thinking?”

I’ll examine four scenarios with the above-described approach. To construct the framework, I identify two significant sources of uncertainty. I asked myself the question, what would most affect my ultimate success in achieving impact with my thought leadership. These are what I judge to be the two biggest unknowns:

  • There is a new dominant idea in the management and leadership space. In the past, managers have seen ideas like Excellence, Six Sigma, and Big Data become focal points for training, conferences, and books. Perhaps there will be a big idea, and perhaps not.
  • Economic growth. Perhaps the world or domestic economy grows, or perhaps it contracts.

I named the four resulting scenarios as shown on the nearby graphic. I am somewhat of an optimist, so I think that we will see global economic growth for the next few years. I am less confident in predicting whether there will be a big idea that gets mindshare. I believe that each of the four scenarios in the nearby graphic are equally likely, and this belief shapes the actions that I will take to adapt to the future.Scenarios for Strategic Thinking Futures

As I wrote earlier, a strategic thinker emphasizes shapes and structure, not events and timelines. Here are a few more learnings:

  • The goal of scenario writing is not prediction, but rather to discern the possible states toward which the future might be “attracted.” This is because complex systems can be deterministic, but unpredictable.
  • Look around for current evidence that supports or denies one of the scenarios. This evidence is a faint signal and you have to judge whether it is both plausible and significant.
  • Use analogies, but use them with caution.

Scenario writing requires imagination and discipline. It’s a good tool for enhancing your strategic thinking.

Do you agree that your goal is to seek flexible alternatives of the future?

Gregs new book available now

Strategic Thinking Contrasted with Operational Thinking

Strategic Operational Thinking largeStrategic thinking describes the individual’s capacity for – and practice of – using their mind to identify and apply factors that will result in success in the future. I’ve always felt that finding an opposing concept to contrast with strategic thinking would help my readers to develop an understanding.

Operational thinking is that concept. I imagine an operational thinker (OT) with this analogy:

He or she manages a factory that is focused on production of a widgets. Everyday raw materials come in, and widgets go out. Although there can be considerable variation in the quality of the inputs, quality of the means of production, and demand, the system is more-or-less predictable. The operational thinker values predictability and stability. Even though the production system might be complex, a disciplined systems thinking approach can reveal the main drivers of performance; thus, it a linear and quantitative thinking approach is useful.

Again using the factory analogy, the OT prefers concrete problems and measures performance with efficiency metrics. The OT’s solution to almost any problem is creating, enhancing, or streamlining a process. Ideally, with excellence in process, the OT can secure the ultimate prize of “ordered perfection.”

I’ve met many people like this, and you probably have too. Although many begin their careers with a capacity for strategic thinking, after a while they lean so heavily on operational thinking that it becomes their dominant thinking habit. One key element is associated with the processes and systems that surround them; processes eliminate ambiguity but strategy is inherently ambiguous.

Most everyone dislikes ambiguity, but can tolerate it to some extent. I think that most operational thinkers find ambiguity to promote a lot of anxiety. Consequently, they find ways to simply avoid it. This denial explains why externally imposed change is so disruptive to organizations.

Operational thinking, like strategic thinking is purposeful. The distinction is OT’s focus is on success in the present. The operational thinker has a strong production orientation and the importance of the production orientation comes to dominate their thinking.

Is there a way to measure or contrast operational versus strategic thinking? I think there is, and it is based on the work of Anthony Gregorc, who has attempted to measure four learning styles that he terms concrete sequential, concrete random, abstract sequential, and abstract random.

Operational thinkers are strong on dimension of concrete sequential work. They are organized and like to get to the point. They value predictability. Operational thinkers are also good with analysis and structured methodology, which is in Gregorc’s abstract sequential domain.

Strategic thinkers, by contrast, are open to experimentation and new viewpoints; these are qualities of Gregorc’s concrete random domain. Strategic thinkers are also imaginative, like the big picture, and flexible, which are in Gregorc’s abstract random domain.Strategic Operational Thinking small

Take a look at the two nearby graphics. Operational thinking is more characteristic of the bottom half and strategic thinking is on the upper half. I have discovered several patterns from the results of people who take the test. The box pattern suggests that the person is equally comfortable with operational and strategic thinking. The kite pattern is similar to the box, but the person has a stronger preference for one of the four axes; a tail toward abstract random would probably indicate a strong strategic thinker and a tail oriented towards concrete sequential would indicate a strong operational thinker. Arrowheads have weak orientation on one axis. Spears are long and skinny patterns.

Do you agree with my characterization of operational thinking? Do you agree that it is the “opposite” of strategic thinking?

You can learn more about Gregorc’s model here: http://www.thelearningweb.net/personalthink.html

Gregs new book available now

Strategic Thinking: Finding Underlying Structure, Reframing, and Testing Expectations

Interesting Seminar

You’ll want to use strategic thinking for grand problems of organizational competitive position, but you’ll also find applicable to more mundane challenges such as this situation:

I was facilitating a workshop to encourage more discipline in project planning and delivery. I was well acquainted with the organization from the CEO down, and I was concerned. I knew participants would be distracted by their laptops and mobile devices because the continuing imperatives of responding to business operations in the midst of making the biggest ever company acquisition.

Every workshop leader and facilitator knows the challenge of gaining and maintaining the attention of participants. I pondered this strategic question on the plane ride: How do I create motivation and energy for the meeting? As I thought about that question, I realized a creative insight: I would start off the seminar with this question: What makes a seminar interesting?

The next day, at the start of the workshop, I wrote the question on a flip chart page. I gave the participants sticky notes and asked them to write short responses on the sticky notes. I instructed them to post the notes to a page and categorize them (see the nearby photo).

In reviewing the group’s result, I said, “Do you agree that you want this workshop to be interesting? If it this is what you want as outcome, you need to work me. You say you want fun and interactive. You need to understand that I’m not an entertainer. If you want interaction, you can’t just passively sit there and listen. You have to contribute.”

I also announced, “I’m here to help you get promoted.” That was a learning from earlier in the year when I found that the message resonates with people, especially those in the early and mid-stages of their career.

We had an engaged and energized session. Learners were willing to accept responsibility for their own learning and their own experience. One person said, “I thought you were just going to teach me some process. The message about getting promoted was really got my attention. This was one of the best workshops I’ve ever attended.”

At the surface, this vignette is just a “how to” insight. But at a deeper level, there are more profound lessons that apply to strategic thinking. First, I recognized an underlying structure that was retarding engagement, and thus strategy execution. I define the underlying structure as a system of interactions that produce recognizable behaviors. They reflect the context. To understand a strategic situation is to understand the a peculiar underlying structure.

Here is a brief description of context: This company’s top executives seldom actively engage in the sponsorship strategic initiatives, except for acquisitions. As long as operating units make their profit projections, there is little interaction with headquarters. From a governance perspective, this highly decentralized organization leaves people alone to apply their own judgment. Further, moves to gain  efficiencies are often thwarted by passive aggressive behaviors (agreeing to support new ideas, and then fighting those same ideas when they affect the local operation). Also due to decentralization and the global scope, people mostly work electronic communications, especially text and email. They find communicating through gadgets to be less ambiguous that working face to face with people. The result for this company is that an short-term operational rhythm dominates its underlying culture.

The underlying structure is one of habits, two being: short-term operational behaviors and the pre-occupation with mobile gadgets.

Second, I used a strategic question to foster reframing the expectations of the workshop participants. Although short-term concrete reactions (have an interesting and fun workshop) were important, we realized more of a balance of looking longer term and more strategically. In this decentralized organization, people could understand career success better than they could understand enterprise success. It’s easier to talk about successful strategy execution when people can see a direct linkage to their paycheck and their career.

There is a third element of strategic thinking in this story. When I developed my insight, I expected people to say that an interesting seminar would result in their beliefs being challenged. Instead, the participants wanted fun and interaction; they didn’t want drudgery. The concept of “beliefs” is just to deep – and potentially scary. The solution needed to be pragmatic.

My expectation was a hypothesis, and the hypothesis was disproven. My hypothesis reflected the story that I was telling to myself, not the reality of the participant’s story. The learning here is one that gets repeated constantly in organizational strategy: individuals carry around stories that may not match their stakeholder. To be successful, I would have to adapt my strategy. Since then, I have started to think about every situation as one that might require me to reframe my own approach. An important lesson:

Good strategy has to adapt to local situations and the stories of strategic stakeholders.

~~

Do you agree that it is useful to look for the underlying structure, to work on reframing, and to test your hypotheses?

The Six Elements of Strategy: A Pattern Perspective

Patterns

Because chess is a game of patterns, you could say that a chess Grand Master is an expert with chess patterns.  Similarly, a strategy master is expert with strategy patterns.

The proposition raises an interesting strategic thinking question, “What are the patterns in strategy?” Patterns are regularities, and their presence suggests some kind of predictability. In chess there are opening moves, in entrepreneurialism there are predictable start-up challenges. In chess, you might have several of your valuable pieces captured, in business your customers can defect to competitors.

There seems to be a countless number of patterns of strategy. Instead of a full cataloguing, let’s find the minimum elements that could describe strategy patterns. To keep it simple, I’ll assume that if a chess player plays 10 matches, there were 10 strategies used by her. Now, turning to the idea of strategy being composed of patterns, I believe there are six elements. They are as follows: players, analysis of the situation, degree of relative advantage/disadvantage in position, resources, decisions about deploying the resources, and an overall life cycle of the strategy.

Let’s see if the six-element model – a pattern – holds for the chess analogy. There are two players. The lifecycle starts with the agreement to join in a game, and its endgame is a checkmate or agreement that it is a draw with no winner. In the opening of a chess game, the players are even in terms of advantage and resources. Throughout the game, each player monitors the situation. Each player makes a decision and moves a resource, followed by the other moving a resource. Soon, the players recognize that they are in a position of advantage or disadvantage; and each continues to move resources until the game ends with victory for one of the players, or a stalemate. The six-element model is valid here!

What about the application to strategies with greater consequences than a chess game? The 2012 United States presidential election involved two principal candidates (players), challenger Mitt Romney and incumbent Barack Obama. The lifecycle begins with each’s announcement of candidacy and end with Romney’s election-night concession and Obama’s victory speech.  Each came into the contest with important resources such as the candidate’s experience, dollars, and organization. Each had perceived advantages: Obama’s incumbency and Romney’s business background.  Interestingly, those advantages were often cast as liabilities. Each campaign made decisions about its resources: where should the candidate go to speak, and where should you send a surrogate? Advantage ebbed and flowed throughout the contest, and the final advantage was not clear until late in the evening of Election Day. Again, the six-element model seems to capture the essential elements of strategy.

These six elements appear to be universal to any situation involving strategy. I call them the master pattern of strategy, but the words archetype or template convey similar meanings. I invite you to test them against your knowledge of a business’s strategy, warfare, or other situations. I would be interested to learn if there are any exceptions.

Next, let’s examine each of the six elements, and the patterns within the element.

  • Lifecycle – The lifecycle for a strategy is similar to other lifecycles: beginning, middle, and end. The lifecycle of a game of chess involves phases that I call the phases of the strategy lifecycle for chess: pre-engagement, opening, development, endgame, and post game. For a business strategy, it might be diagnosis of a challenge, formulation of intent, creation of policy and resources, and implementation of decisions. You could also view this lifecycle for a strategy as a subset of the organization’s lifecycle.
  • Players – The players are normally individuals, but could be organizations. Regardless, there are repeating patterns, such as values and habits that guide their decision making. From a strategy perspective, we know that self-awareness is one important skill for the strategist. By extension, the strategist seeks to learn their opponent’s intentions and patterns of behavior, which may yield an advantage. In some cases, each player’s narrative arc, that is, their life story becomes a resource and a link to the lifecycle of a strategy. Examples would include each of the two presidential candidates touting their life story as evidence for their qualifications for the Presidency, Christopher Columbus’ experiences as a sailor and as a mapmaker in Lisbon, and Estee Lauder’s experience as a woman in post-WWI and WWII New York City.
  • Situation – The situation is your subjective assessment of those factors that describe your status or position in the strategic milieu. This element is rich in patterns, with some patterns more relevant to others. For example, weather is a series of patterns. There are trends in the economy. New entrants enter markets. All of these affect the strategist because the context changes, putting the strategist in a new situation. Not to be overlooked are patterns that describe possible future scenarios.
  • Resources – Resources are the source of power. The rook piece in chess has a defined power different from that found in a pawn, and has constraints on how it can move. The rook has flexibilities different from a pawn. In other examples, we can see that inventors gain power by securing patents. Armies have power provided by the skill level and motivation of its soldiers and officers.
  • Relative advantage – Although related to the element of situation, the relative advantage is important enough to warrant its own category. The relative advantage is the real goal of a strategy: to create advantage over something else. This element forces an important question related to context, resources, and decisions: Am I in a stronger or weaker position?
  • Decisions to commit resources – This element involves concepts like movements of resources, reversibility of commitments, and rules (existing and emerging) and constraints. From a pattern perspective, you might consider whether habit and inertia will dominate the decisions, or whether there needs to be breakthrough.

How You Use This as a Tool

Finally, let’s return to the statement that chess grand masters are experts with chess patterns, and the logical extension that strategy masters are experts of strategy patterns.  If you are concerned about strategy in business, it will do you little good to learn chess patterns. (And, for the record, I don’t play chess.)  Instead, you need to learn about your business’s context: its success factors, the competitors, the role of government regulation, and so forth.  Consider making a list of those patterns, and consult and edit your list from time to time, knowing that often entrenched behaviors and wisdom are vulnerabilities that competitors can exploit. Even better, organize that list into a hierarchical map of patterns.

The definition of a pattern as a regularity should stimulate some useful questions: What regularities are present in the industry (seasonality, correlation with GDP)? What regularities do you have in your decision-making or other habits (pricing decisions, talent decisions, meeting management)?

Strategic thinking often involves reframing, which is the practice of taking on new perspectives.  Patterns functions as frames; they give you a sense of structure. They help you make predictions. On the other hand, patterns may also be the source of status quo thinking and make you vulnerable to a competitor who has better insights than you do.

Try applying this six element model to a strategic situation. Does it offer you a better understanding or insights?

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?

~~~

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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Strategic Thinking versus the “Facilitation Fluff” of Strategic Planning

Picture of marshmellow fluff

Too often, companies hire professional facilitators to support their strategic planning meetings but get nothing more than fluff. Many of these facilitators (under the claim of being a certified and master facilitator) have only a superficial understanding of strategy. They help the meeting produce something – but that something is definitely not strategy. Instead they help expensive executives and managers facilitate the production of fluff statements.

This article is not an attack on the idea of facilitation of meetings. Indeed, many meetings are wasteful and frustrating; and to be clear, a facilitator can be helpful.  However, experience shows that many facilitators push their technique at the expense of strategic thinking.

Mission, Vision, and Values: Is This Simply “Polishing the Doorknobs?”

Statements of mission, vision, and values are important; especially to small businesses. It is a good idea to have written something on paper about mission, vision, and values.  JUST DON”T TELL YOURSELF THAT YOU ARE PRODUCING STRATEGY!

  • A mission tells the organization its purpose
  • A vision establishes a verifiable future
  • A statement of values expresses those aspirations thought to be important.

If you already have a reasonably good statement, don’t let a facilitator waste your time on refreshing or rewriting them. It’s just an exercise in wordsmithing.  This activity is “doorknob polishing;” the doorknob is functional (the statement has been written), but there is not need to make it gleam and impress others.

And, while we’re at it…..

Strategic Plans are Documents – Let’s Hope that We Can Find a Strategy

In the last 3 weeks, I have reviewed three statements of strategy.  Only 1 of the 3 documents actually had something that I would recognize as a strategy.  The other two were just statements of goals and aspirations.  The one good strategy document clearly showed the nature of the business situation and constructed a focused set of guiding actions that would address the business situation. The good strategy was the result of insights that came from thinking strategically.e

Interestingly, the “strategic plan” that was produced by a professional facilitator looked great. However, I could find no strategy. It was attractive and concise, but an exemplar of fluff.  It probably worked fine to for internal alignment, but INTERNAL ALIGNMENT DOES NOT MAKE A DOCUMENT A STRATEGY!

How do I know? If I gave this document to a competitor of the company they would just yawn. If it were truly a good strategy, the reaction would be to mount a counter-response to avoid loss of advantage.  One of the acid tests of a good strategy is simply this: would your competitors be worried if they saw your strategy?

Facilitators and the Myth of High-Energy Meetings

Granted (again) that meetings are frustrating, boring, and wasteful; most of us would prefer entertainment and energy – even fun.  A facilitator that knows lots of good facilitation techniques can create the illusion of progress.  But it is really a dulling of the pain.

Your goal should NOT be to have a high-energy strategic planning meeting. It should be to design a good strategy….one that provides the organizational focus, leverage, investment guidance, and policy guidance.  As I wrote in a prior article, any written statements might be as straightforward as describing the objectives, scope, and advantages.

If you are really interested in creating a strategy that provides your organization a competitive advantage, you need to do the hard work of strategic thinking.

Hard Work – Nice Guys Finish Last

The truth is that strategy (in general) strategic thinking (in particular) is hard work.  Strategic thinking produces insights. This insight generation can be creatively fulfilling and powerful.  In my experience, this requires these essentials:

  • Quiet and undistracted time for individual reflection
  • Facts and data, not just gut feeling and aspirations
  • Listening to others, even if we have to patiently work with those who “think out loud”
  • A tolerance of ambiguity
  • A framework for taking strategic insights and putting them into a strategy

My own experience in facilitating strategy is this: you have to be clear in your own mind what good strategy looks like, and be able to discern it from doorknob polishing fluff.  You have to help your client find insights and knit those insights into a coherent set of activities that positions the organization’s resources in a logical way to meet serious and proximate competitive challenges.

There are thousands of charismatic facilitators who have a confused understanding of strategy as mission, visions, values, goals and the like. Facilitation fluff is common.

Do you agree that facilitation fluff is common and a problem? How have you seen it in practice? Do you agree that strategic thinking and insights needs a subtle and nuanced approach to finding insights and applying them?

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?