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Don’t just think – think STRATEGICALLY!

20/10/2009 12:28

Much had been written and said about the importance of applying strategic planning in our fast-paced and constantly changing globalized society. In this article MANIE BOSMAN proposes that in order to survive and be successful in such a dynamic environment, leaders need to go a step further and be strategic thinkers, not merely strategic planners.

After losing a million lives during World War I and seeing another 5 million seriously wounded, the French government vowed to avoid a recurrence of this bloody war and decided to fortify the country against any future German invasions. A colossal 782 km long line of heavily armed blockhouses, fortifications, tank obstacles, and bunkers, which was 25 km wide in places and which included more than 100 km of underground passages, was constructed along the French borders with Germany and Italy. French Minister of Defense André Maginot, after which the line was named, declared that it would stop a German assault long enough for the French army to fully mobilize its forces, and then act as a practically impenetrable base from which to fend off the attack. An added advantage would be that it would restrict any battles to the outer boundaries of French territory, thereby preventing damage to the interior and occupation. However, when the Germans launched its long-expected attack on France in May 1940, they used their highly mobilized forces to outflank the Maginot Line and attack the French interior through Belgium. By doing this, they avoided a direct assault on the Maginot Line, effectively cutting the French forces entrenched there off from the rest of the country and leaving a nearly unprotected Paris to be occupied on June 14.[i]

 

How could the French military strategists not have foreseen this, having had more than two decades to plan their country’s defense between the two wars?  In hindsight, the answer is simple - they were in fact fully aware of the fact that the route through Belgium was relatively open and undefended, but they had planned their costly and ultimately hopeless defense strategy on outdated information, not taking into consideration the radical changes and developments in military technology. The French had erected the Maginot Line on the false premise that like World War I, the next war would also be a static, defensive encounter; not contemplating that fast-travelling German armored vehicles would be able to outflank them while German bombers simply flew over the defenses to attack French targets.

While it had been stated that the one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history, there is a crucial lesson to be learnt here for everyone intent on making a success in our fast-changing globalized world. The French military strategists did not fail due to a lack of strategic planning or strategic management – their expensive and tragic failure was caused by a lack of strategic thinking. Leaders, managers, coaches, and entrepreneurs – even and perhaps especially those who view themselves as visionaries and forward thinkers – need to take great care not to be similarly entrapped by what they think they know and what they expect to happen as a result.

Seeing the Whole Changing Picture

In a stable and slow-changing environment, strategic planning is relatively easy. Once the relevant information has been collected and processed, a linear and logical trail of thinking should lead to a fairly accurate “whole picture” of the future. However, in a global landscape where chaos, complexity and continuous change have become the new constants, we need new ways of thinking and seeing the “whole changing picture” to guide our organizations through the potential minefields.[ii] In what has been called the “age of discontinuity”, many organizations fail not because they are doing the wrong things or because they are doing things in a wrong way, but because they are doing things fruitlessly.[iii] Why – because many of the assumptions on which organizations had been build no longer fits a constantly-changing reality. Assumptions about markets, customers, competitors, the organization’s strengths and weaknesses, values, profits, and technology becomes potential stumbling blocks if they are not constantly challenged, tested and re-aligned to a changing world.[iv] To do this effectively, we need to become strategic thinkers.

The difference between traditional linear strategic planning and strategic thinking can be compared to American Business Theorist Chris Argyris’ concepts of single-loop learning and double-loop learning.[v] Single-loop learning occurs when existing assumptions are used to choose an action from what is assumed to be a fixed set of potential available actions.[vi] This is similar to strategic planning. The Maginot Line was constructed as an available strategic action based on the assumption derived from World War I that the next war would also be a static war.

On the other hand, double-loop learning occurs when existing knowledge and assumptions are questioned and challenged to develop new and ground-breaking solutions, often leading to new and more effective actions.[vii] Similarly, strategic thinking challenges existing assumptions and incorporates a variety of methods to analyze and integrate all available information from different fields in order to develop new innovative solutions.

Quite ironically, the French military planners had the opportunity to apply double-loop learning or strategic thinking to their defensive planning strategy. Before the line was actually constructed, various studies were undertaken to determine the best possible way to protect France against future German aggression. While the majority, using evidence for the First World War, advocated a strong defensive line on the country’s eastern border, a smaller group warned that future armies would become fast-moving and mobile, and would strongly rely on armored vehicles and air support.[viii] This smaller group of thinkers, one of which was future French president Charles de Gaulle, had effectively applied strategic thinking. Instead of merely following a linear planning process within the constraints of existing knowledge and assumptions of warfare, they incorporated knowledge and possibilities from other fields such as advances in aeronautical and vehicle technology to arrive at a “whole picture” scenario of what a future war could look like.

When dealing with the future and related organizational change theories, single-loop learning can also be compared to forecasting – a tool often used to procure information about the future by analyzing existing data and trends. While this can be helpful under static conditions, it becomes an often useless approach when applied to complex and rapidly changing conditions. Under such conditions, we need to have foresight – the ability to recognize emerging trends and to comprehend the dynamics of the “whole changing picture”. Only then can we identify and strategically react on new conditions as they are starting to develop.

To be strategically effective, we need to first use proper strategic thinking to develop foresight and then do our strategic planning accordingly. Strategic thinking should thus precede strategic planning.[ix] Applying single-loop thinking to construct a strategic plan based on limited assumptions and options could result in humiliation and failure, as the French have learnt at a terrible cost.

Fusion of Intuition and Information

Whereas organizational leaders could depend on rational analysis of quantitative data and so-called scientific thinking until a decade or two ago, strategic thinking requires more. Even the cliché “out-of-the-box”-thinking no longer describes what is needed – instead, we need a combination of in-the-box, out-of-the-box, on-top-of-the-box, and sometimes even under-the-box thinking to qualify as strategic thinkers.

Sony’s co-founder, Akio Moriata, once declared that “creativity requires something more than the processing of information. It requires human thought, spontaneous intuition and a lot of courage”.[x] The use of intuition in decision making recently gained renewed popular support after the publication of pop-sociologist Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. Gladwell provided strong scientific evidence indicating that snap judgments are often more accurate than deep data analysis in making the correct decisions. He described these snap judgments as a subconscious process where the brain draws on previous experience and information stored in the subconscious to reach instant conclusions which could be described as “intuitive” or instinctive. [xi]

In her enlightening work on strategic thinking, Strategic thinking and the new science, Irene Sanders explained that strategic thinking consists of two major parts – insight into the present and foresight about the future. She proposed the use of what she terms “visual thinking” to stimulate both present insight and future foresight by linking our “intuitive sense of events” with our intellectual knowledge and understanding.[xii] Thinking in pictures integrates the “techniques of imagination” and the “skill of intuition” with our analytical abilities to help us see and understand the complexities of our ever-changing environments.[xiii] Visual representations help to extract and synthesize information, it stimulates new perspectives which help to form better and more complete comparisons, and it enhances recall and sequencing of information. When applied in a group or organizational context, it helps to integrate different views and build mutual understanding.[xiv]

The idea of combining intuition and intellectual knowledge is closely related to the concept of Whole Brain Thinking, which proposes that effective thinking or data processing should include the use of both the left half of the brain (dealing with language, logic, calculations, detail, organizing) as well as the right half of the brain (intuitive, artistic, holistic, dealing with emotions, images, symbols).[xv] Instead of just using the right-brain to analyze quantitative data and then use it to construct strategic plans, Whole Brain thinking also harnesses the left-brain’s visual ability to recognize patterns, similarities and relationships not obvious during rational data analysis. In this way, strategic thinking enables us to see beyond the obvious, thus becoming an insight-foresight skill to steer our decision making and strategic planning during times of rapid change.

The bad news is that most of us develop a preference to use either left- or right-brain thinking in the early years of our development. The good news is that Gladwell, Sanders and almost all other experts on the subject seem to agree that one can learn to use both sides and become more complete in our thinking processes.[xvi] Creative geniuses such as Tchaikovsky, Einstein, Poincaré and Brahms all testified to experiencing moments of extraordinary intuition and insight. Sanders believe they were all visual thinkers who consciously nurtured the process of insight – using their imaginations to “engage both intuition and intellect.”[xvii]

Individual and Organizational Application

When dealing with organizational change, strategic thinking can be beneficial and should be applied on both the individual and organizational level. For the individual, strategic thinking will help to form a holistic or “whole changing picture” of the organization and its environment (internal and external). By applying and developing the skills of visualization, it will also stimulate and improve creativity. Learning to combine these advantages with intuitive thinking will then result in a clearer picture of the possible future and emerging trends, which will strengthen the individual’s strategic foresight abilities.[xviii]

In Organizations, strategic thinking and visualization can be used in a number of ways to help the organization turn change-related challenges into opportunities for growth and development. However, it is important to keep in mind that strategic thinking is a human endeavor – it cannot be done by computers or mathematical theories. Organizations should therefore create the internal environments where individual strategic thinking can take place. This can be done by facilitating and encouraging continuous strategic dialogue, and by creating opportunities to harness the ingenuity and creativity of every individual employee in the strategic thinking process. Apart from the cognitive and practical benefits already mentioned, the organization or group can benefit from the very process itself as it stimulates and enhances employee involvement and engagement, both of which has been found to be positively related to job satisfaction and organizational commitment.[xix] Studies have also shown that intuitive judgment can have a positive effect on both the tempo and quality of decision making, and on entrepreneurial behavior.[xx]

When all is said and done, strategic thinking is simply a process of making use of all our God-given abilities to lead ourselves, our people and our organizations through times of change. It thus comes down to recognizing, harnessing and applying what we’ve had all along. In the words of the renowned 19th Century British preached Charles Spurgeon “to know how to use knowledge is to have wisdom.”[xxi]

 

Endnotes:

[i] Wilde, R. (2001). The Maginot Line. About.Com. Retrieved on September 10, 2009, from http://europeanhistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa070601a.htm  Lehmann, D. (2005). The Maginot Line. Retrieved on September 11, 2009, from http://www.axishistory.com/index.php?id=6698

[ii] Sanders, T. I. (1998). Strategic thinking and the new science. New York: The Free Press.

[iii] Burke, W. W. (2002). Organization change: Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, (p. 4).  Drucker, P. F. (1994). The theory of the business. Harvard Business Review, 72 (5), 95-104.

[iv] Burke, W. W. (2002). Organization change: Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.  Drucker, P. F. (1994). The theory of the business. Harvard Business Review, 72 (5), 95-104.

[v] Heracleous, L. (1998), Strategic thinking or strategic planning? Long Range Planning, 31 (3), 481-7.  Bonn, I. (2001). Developing strategic thinking as a core competency. Management Decision, 39 (1), 63-75.

[vi] Argyris, C. (2002). Double-Loop Learning, Teaching, and Research. Academy of Managemeal Learning and Education, 1 (2), 206 -218.  Argyris, C. (1977). Double loop learning in organizations. Harvard Business Review, September/October, 115-125.

[vii] Argyris, C. (2002). Double-Loop Learning, Teaching, and Research. Academy of Managemeal Learning and Education, 1 (2), 206 -218.  Argyris, C. (1977). Double loop learning in organizations. Harvard Business Review, September/October, 115-125.  Bonn, I. (2001). Developing strategic thinking as a core competency. Management Decision, 39 (1), 63-75.

[viii] Wilde, R. (2001). The Maginot Line. About.Com. Retrieved on September 10, 2009, from http://europeanhistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa070601a.

[ix] Heracleous, L. (1998), Strategic thinking or strategic planning? Long Range Planning, 31 (3), 481-7.  Bonn, I. (2005). Improving strategic thinking: a multilevel approach. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 26 (5/6), 336-354.

[x] Gerard P. Hodgkinson, P. G., Sadler-Smith, E., Burke, L. A., Claxton, G., & Sparrow, P. R. (2009). Intuition in organizations: Implications for strategic management. Long Range Planning, 42, 277-297. 

[xi] Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink. London, UK: Penguin Books.

[xii] Sanders, T. I. (1998). Strategic thinking and the new science. New York: The Free Press. (p. 10).

[xiii] Sanders, T. I. (1998). Strategic thinking and the new science. New York: The Free Press. (p. 84).

[xiv] Eppler, M. J., & Platts (2009). Visual strategizing: The systematic use of visualization in the strategic-planning process. Long Range Planning, 42, 42-74.

[xv] Herrmann, N. (1982). A bulletin special: The creative brain. NASSP Bulletin, 66, 31-36. Herrmann, N. (1981). The creative brain. Training and Development Journal, October, 11-16. Herrmann, N. (1998). The theory behind the HBDI and whole brain technology. Retrieved on October 20, 2009, from http://www.incitestrategiesinc.com/docs/TheTheoryBehindHBDI.pdf

[xvi] Gerard P. Hodgkinson, P. G., Sadler-Smith, E., Burke, L. A., Claxton, G., & Sparrow, P. R. (2009). Intuition in organizations: Implications for strategic management. Long Range Planning, 42, 277-297.  Sanders, T. I. (1998). Strategic thinking and the new science. New York: The Free Press. (p. 93). Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink. London, UK: Penguin Books.  Herrmann, N. (1998). The theory behind the HBDI and whole brain technology. Retrieved on October 20, 2009, from http://www.incitestrategiesinc.com/docs/TheTheoryBehindHBDI.pdf

[xvii] Sanders, T. I. (1998). Strategic thinking and the new science. New York: The Free Press. (p. 93).

[xviii] Bonn, I. (2001). Developing strategic thinking as a core competency. Management Decision, 39 (1), 63-75.

[xix] Eppler, M. J., & Platts (2009). Visual strategizing: The systematic use of visualization in the strategic-planning process. Long Range Planning, 42, 42-74.  Sanders, T. I. (1998). Strategic thinking and the new science. New York: The Free Press.

[xx] Gerard P. Hodgkinson, P. G., Sadler-Smith, E., Burke, L. A., Claxton, G., & Sparrow, P. R. (2009). Intuition in organizations: Implications for strategic management. Long Range Planning, 42, 277-297.

[xxi] Goodreads. (2009). Quotes by Charles Spurgeon. Retrieved on September 13, 2009, from http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/65486.Charles_Spurgeon