One of the most important characteristics of a leader is the ability to think strategically. Leaders must be adept at recognizing themes, trends, and data applications and envisioning big ideas. These strategic thinking skills are vital.
However, there is an additional factor to strategic thinking that I often find missing from leaders’ skill sets: the ability to envision the organizational consequences of the strategic choices they are considering. A leader must understand the exact implications of including specific trends, themes, and ideas in an organization’s design. The ability to connect strategic ideas to results is particularly relevant for inexperienced leaders, who often mistake innovative thinking for strategic thinking.
As an example, I once led a planning session in which one participant stood out for his innovative thinking. He was highly skilled at generating fresh ideas about where the company was headed strategically. However, he did not seem to grasp and could not communicate what the ultimate implications might be should his ideas be implemented. The more seasoned members of the leadership team eventually stonewalled his ideas and turned their attention to ideas and strategic planning that took into account potential implications for the organization’s talent, resources, and positioning.
Scenarios like this are not infrequent. While innovation is welcome and important, innovative ideas are ultimately only useful when resources can be applied and the organization’s attention shifted. If innovation stops at ideas, then the company’s capabilities are never realigned to deliver the breakthrough ideas.
Moving from innovative thinking to strategic thinking
How can you encourage people to think both strategically and practically? Whether you are a new or seasoned leader, consider implementing these practices:
Seek out frameworks and tools that facilitate strategic thinking. Good tools and frameworks facilitate strategic visioning and provide a concrete model within which leaders can process information and grasp the implications of their choices on the organization. My firm’s Rubik’s Cube model of organization alignment is an example. It provides a visual means for understanding the different aspects of an organization, how strategic ideas will trickle through the company, and how changes in one area will affect others and the organization overall.
Use forums. In a forum setting, leaders gather to envision new strategic possibilities and to vet their organizational implications. It’s an excellent opportunity for them to discuss and analyze the consequences of a proposed strategy. The live interaction possible in a forum allows both innovative and practical thinkers to benefit from each other’s strengths, and facilitates the process of identifying and remedying organizational and strategic misalignments.
Encourage strategic discussions. Meetings offer an ideal opportunity to exercise strategic thinking by thoughtfully suggesting trade-offs or pointing out the consequences of past or present choices on the organization. Even a new executive or manager can eventually become a role model of practical strategic thinking by exercising conscious awareness of the implications of strategic choices.
Involve all levels of the organization. When strategic conversations are allowed to move beyond the walls of the executive meeting room, they become more robust through the involvement of not just high-level decision makers, but also those responsible for implementing the strategy.
When one of our clients developed a process for strategic planning that cascaded throughout the organization, it compelled leaders at all levels to discuss the consequences of their choices. They were forced to be aware of how their decisions would affect resource allocation, talent and skill requirements, and other organizational and technical capabilities. The result was a much more practical strategic approach that served this client well.
The consequences of strategic decisions
Leaders in organizations where we facilitate planning and design sessions often appreciate the opportunity to help teams think through the choices they make and envision the tangible consequences of strategic decisions. This process is grounded in practical best practices like those laid out above: setting aside time for strategic thinking in and outside of meetings, selecting tools that support the process, and encouraging a practical strategic approach throughout the organization.
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