Thinking Strategically About Strategic Thinking

Strategic thinking is nothing without execution. To move from vision to action, strategic thinking cannot remain solely the visionary’s domain.

But how do we hone strategic thinking within our organizations, and how do we all learn to become better strategic thinkers in the first place? How can we leverage the talents and unique strengths of everyone to refine our strategy? How do we maximize the value that inclusion has for strategy?

We think it is time to get strategic about strategic thinking—that’s why we invite you, as our client, to take a deep dive with us into each of the core components required for strategic thinking. It is why we start with clear and reliable data on the strengths of your team, to determine how these strengths can both propel teams forward and weave your organization into a greater high-performing whole.

Our approach integrates a new model for defining the components of successful strategy with an evidenced-based assessment tool backed by data from decades of research in psychology. The first is LENS (see below), a recent formulation from the Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking (CLST), the research division of the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. One of our Senior Associates, Chelley Patterson, contributed to its development. The assessment tool is one you may have heard of and even used already, CliftonStrengths

Strategic Thinking Strengths Exist in a Range

Clifton’s “Top 5” report has long been invaluable to individuals who want to leverage their overall strengths for career satisfaction and success. However, we call upon the full range of strengths (out of the total of 34 that can be charted), specifically in the strategic thinking domain, regardless of how each strength in this quadrant figures into an individual’s overall results. Rather than using Clifton simply to identify an individual’s dominant strengths, we call upon its insight into the full range of strategy skills to support an individual’s work in concert, to build collective capacity for strategic thinking and execution.

Strategic Thinking’s Four Primary Components: LENS

Intended to fill the need for a scientifically grounded and verifiable model of strategic thinking at the point of its inception, LENS stands for the four essential components of strategic capacity:

  • Learning from past experience
  • Engaging with organizational systems
  • Navigating organizational complexity
  • Setting a new organizational course

Each of these skills involves thinking about time: contemplating the past, envisioning the future, and working in the present. Productive strategic thinking requires looking backward in reflection as well as looking forward with imagination. It also involves objective analysis and systems thinking about current realities.

Each component of LENS corresponds to core strengths within your team, and if you are using Clifton or other assessments such as the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, you can begin to understand how to better leverage the power of your team for strategic thinking.


Activating Strategic Thinking Skills In Your Team

LENS offers additional insight into the actual components of strategic thinking, and provides a solid scaffolding from which to encourage and develop strategic thinking in teams, where individual strengths or preferences need to be taken into account and areas for growth identified and supported.

Strategic thinking is a critical skill for leaders hoping to advance into executive and future-facing roles. Helping your team understand its value to you and your efforts right now, as well as the power of strategic thinking to build their expertise and support their career growth, is a powerful combination.
While we may gather some data in advance, we encourage team strategic thinking by engaging the team in gaining knowledge about itself and what is already “known” in the contextual and historical knowledge of the team. We also tailor our efforts to helping team members with different preferences engage. Among the tools we might use is the Current Reality Map, to activate the E and N components of LENS, with an understanding that this type of thinking will come more naturally to people who rank high in the corresponding Analytical, Input, Intellection, and Strategic strengths and who are naturally more extroverted. We will do a PEST (political, environmental, social, technological) analysis using an affinity diagram process that helps introverts “play” and feel the psychological safety required for their deeper engagement. We would expect these people to be energized by the exercise. Backcasting activates the L and S components in LENS and can pull team members of all types into the design of a desired future.

Effective strategic thinking within an organization is not about relying on the greatest minds and dominant strengths; it’s about weaving and balancing a multiplicity of skills and the removal of blind spots for greater outcomes.

We know that a business needs a full spectrum of strengths based on inclusivity, trust, and belonging to truly succeed, and that the risk for significant overlap in unmanaged dominant skills can be great. The chief attraction of like-mindedness is the “high” of synergy. Yet, too much like-mindedness distorts collective strategic thinking into groupthink. The disadvantages of like-mindedness far outweigh the benefits. A culture that successfully fosters trust and safety in the context of the greatest possible span of diversity—that welcomes difference and is able to balance differing opinions—will foster strategic thinking that is grounded, opportunistic, and implementable.

We also know that, while organizations’ overall strategic thinking skills tend to concentrate in the most senior teams, it is rare for any single person to exercise certain combinations of strategic thinking skills simultaneously, regardless of their place in an organization.

For example, Context and Futuristic strengths are frequently mutually exclusive; it is hard for any one person to embody both at once. In the case of one client’s organization of 30 people, not a single person had both among their top 10 strengths. This means that no one who excelled at contemplating the past in order to understand the present and make decisions about the future (Context) was also simultaneously peering over the horizon to conjure creative visions of the future (Futuristic).

Just as certain strengths might be mutually exclusive, others can overlap. We’ve found, for example, that Ideation, Learner, and Strategic strengths tend to cluster. In the same sample of 30 people, nearly half had at least two of these three among their top 10 strengths; five of those people had all three among their top 10. These three strengths were the most heavily represented in the sample, with 80% of respondents having at least one of them in their top 10.

It follows, then, that certain strengths may be underrepresented: Context appeared in the bottom 10 strengths of 60% of respondents in that same sample. Thus, while it is easy to make assumptions about a team’s overall capabilities, without deeper inquiry and analysis significant imbalances can remain hidden.

Intentionally seeking a balance of strategic strengths within an organization often involves supporting some individuals in building new strengths or learning to use the ones they have differently. It may also involve targeted hiring, especially in larger organizations.

Guided in part by assessment tools that we have great confidence in, we help clients achieve and maintain the balance required for successful strategic thinking. The productive tension resulting from creating successful strategy collaboratively can be leveraged to deliver yet greater traction for individuals, teams, and organizations. 

Learn about leveraging strategic capacity into execution and how we help clients carry out their strategic plans.

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