The Forgotten Art of Strategic Thinking

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written by Alice Waagen

One of the challenges of any consultant’s life is to be vigilant in spotting trends. When a number of clients are asking for the same service, I sit up and ask: what is going on that the same pain, the same challenge is popping up with some regularity.

In the past few weeks, I’ve had four different inquiries for help with strategic thinking skills and practices. Normally I am asked to help new leaders to let go of their focus on tactical and to move to be more strategic. But these recent requests were to address the long-range view for every level of leadership, from front-line to C-Suite. I smell a trend at work here.

Addressing these client requests with a series of workshops and coaching sessions, I kept my eyes open for some reasons why strategic thinking should suddenly be deemed insufficient. Here are some of my observations:

  • “What gets measured, gets done” is the mantra behind most business planning methodologies. Our current business metrics focus on measures that are tracked monthly and quarterly with an occasional annual roll up. The much maligned yet still ever-present performance management systems nearly all cycle on an annual basis. If your window of rewards and corrections is based on 12 months of effort, how can you expect someone to gaze past that horizon?
  • Marry these short-term measures with our ever-on, instant-response mobile communication culture and you get a person focused not on the next week or month but on the next minute and hour. We are mired by in-the-moment information acquisition and decision-which makes it nearly impossible to think strategically.
  • The pace of work today limits recovery time from errors produced by short-term thinking. Miss a critical trend and your competition can leverage that gaff into a fatal loss of revenue or market share.

Strategic thinking utilizes a completely different mindset and skills than the analytical and critical thinking short-term views engage. Thinking long-range involves engaging in what-if and maybe postulation. The further ahead we think, the more vague and ambiguous our cognition becomes. More unknowns enter the equation and certainty evaporates. If a person is comfortable in a concrete and controllable universe, thinking into the future where predictability is limited can be an unsettling experience. Tactical planning and action can be a comfort zone beyond which leaders may not want to go.

The business world is littered with failed organizations that did not see a damning trend approaching. Leaders who fail to look ahead and stay in the comfort of today risk obsolescence. One of my favorite authors for strategy topics is Martin Reeves. Reeves states: Public companies have a one in three chance of being delisted in the next five years. Those are some scary statistics for any leader who wants to leave a legacy of success.

lice Waagen, PhD is president of Workforce Learning LLC, a management consulting company that provides business leaders with the skills and knowledge they need to build organizations that are productive and healthy. Dr. Waagen is passionate about helping her corporate clients and the missions that they serve.  She strives to make every engagement produce tangible value by helping business executives discover better, faster and more efficient ways to lead their workforces to business success.

HRDQ-U and Alice Waagen hosted a free webinar you can  Watch here. 


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