Here’s why this is so critical.
At its core, strategic planning involves a process of analysis. You do some research into what is and what isn’t possible. You define a goal, break that goal down into manageable steps, and determine how to implement them while identifying the expected consequences of each step. It’s a logical, straightforward process designed to sequentially move the organization from where you are now to where you want to go.
The huge flaw in this process is the assumption that the world is reasonably stable and somewhat predictable. Maybe a few generations ago. But anyone who has been paying attention the last few years knows that today’s world is neither.
The traditional planning model also assumes that products and markets move through their life cycles in a sequential, orderly manner. Again, maybe a few generations ago, but certainly not any more. When you can’t forecast what your market will look like in a year or even six months, engaging in a lengthy planning process only wastes time and resources. Worse, it gives competitors who have already embraced strategic thinking a distinct advantage.
What’s the difference between strategic planning and strategic thinking?
Strategic planning is a seemingly logical, linear, step-by-step process that focuses on analysis. Strategic thinking engages other parts of our brain in synthesizing in addition to analyzing. It uses intuition, creativity and “what if?” questioning to pull together an integrated perspective from a wide variety of data sources and creates a vision of where the organization needs to go.
Strategic planning has a beginning and an end. It is typically conducted by senior management, and usually results in a formal written plan. Strategic thinking never ends. It becomes an integral part of how the organization conducts its business, and needs to be practiced by employees at all levels.
To develop the skill of strategic thinking in your organization:
Focus on a target. Start by getting very clear on what winning looks like for your organization (division, team, project, etc.). Then communicate your picture of winning over and over until everyone gets it.
Ask the right questions. When you can’t have all the data, the only alternative is to ask the right questions. Good questions get people to look at the same data differently, so that you get many different perspectives on any given issue. They also shift the energy so that people look to find what will instead of what won’t.
Balance the big picture and the details along the way. Here’s where strategic thinking really diverges from strategic planning. With strategic planning, you set a firm course and stick to it as much as possible, making some allowances for deviation from the plan. Strategic thinking remains focused on the target (big picture) while staying open and flexible to changing what it takes to get there (the details).
Explore new channels. Strategic thinking also requires broadening your horizons and expanding your data gathering efforts beyond traditional sources. What’s happening beyond the walls of your business and your industry? Where else can you look to learn? How can you develop new ways of communicating and connecting with key stakeholders?
Teach strategic thinking skills. Teach people at all levels to anticipate opportunities and threats while managing their day-to-day tasks and responsibilities. Give them the training, coaching, and mentoring to become more responsive to changing customer needs. Develop their creative problem solving skills, and help them understand how their decisions and actions impact the business in the future as well as today.
Stage your field of vision. Most of all, strategic thinking requires a daily focus on your vision of winning. How will you keep the right things in front of you to direct your attention, energy, and thoughts on winning? How can you get them in front of others? How will you stay clear on winning when major challenges and obstacles arise?
Strategic thinking requires a delicate balancing act between holding fast to your vision of winning while adjusting to the constant upheavals in the world around us. It also requires the development of new skills and ways of thinking. The ultimate goal is to develop strategic agility, or the ability to respond quickly to changing market conditions without losing focus on your vision of winning.
If you’re still doing strategic planning the old way, when the next big change hits your market or industry, don’t be surprised to find that you’re the one who gets left behind.