Strategic Thinking and Leadership

Do you truly understand the difference between strategic and tactical thinking and application? If so, do you understand enough about the similarities and differences to create aligned goals, apply meaningful actions and ensure that one leads effortlessly to the other?

Many a plan or process has failed due to a lack of clear direction and early identification of the problem to be solved, leading to a poor concept of the strategies required.

The subject of strategy is vast and complex. This blog highlights that there is power in understanding what strategic thinking is and its necessary alignment to the tactical tasks and practical choices we make every day. In this instance, a useful Leadership and Strategic Thinkingdefinition of strategy is, “A word of military origin (which) refers to a plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal. In military usage strategy is distinct from tactics, which are concerned with the conduct of an engagement, while strategy is concerned with how different engagements are linked” (1).

This is a relevant point – although business is obviously different to the military, the context of the definition has significance, particularly the point that strategy refers to the links between leadership, different engagements (military) and actions/tasks (business).

I was working with someone recently who engaged me to assist with his preparation for an interview for a more senior leadership position. The conversation went well and I was able to offer him several suggestions and concepts designed to stretch his thinking, to be better prepared for the interview and importantly, a plan for the role, if successful.

Whilst we were talking however, a concept became much clearer to me. In my colleagues case he was able to talk to many relevant, tactical initiatives and actions that could be applied in his first three months. In contrast, his strategic assessment and context was not as strong and we spent much of the session focusing on this subject. In essence, I was asking whether he had an understanding of the plan of action for what he would be trying to achieve and why these points were of core focus.

Strategic Thinking MindMap in Leadership

After reflecting on this and other similar discussions, the part that I find most intriguing is that although people generally have a solid grasp of the broader concepts of strategy, they are often much more experienced and comfortable talking to the tactical elements. An inability to define strategies is not unusual for many in entry-level management roles who have less experience and exposure to strategic thinking but this skill-gap becomes an issue when promoted to more senior leadership roles, where this is seen as one of the more important, core skill requirements.

Understanding the bigger picture is important: “Setting strategy isn’t the same as leading strategy. Even the best strategist can falter when it comes to implementing and sustaining the right direction for the business. In fact, statistics indicate that only from 4 to 7 percent of leader‟s exhibit strategic skills, a woefully inadequate amount given the demands of organizations in today’s environment… But the pressure to meet short-term targets and solve functional problems is creating a leadership pipeline with limited strategic leadership capacity…Strategic thinking is grounded in a strong understanding of the complex relationship between the organization and its environment. Strategic thinkers take a broad view; ask probing questions; and identify connections, patterns and key issues” (2).

It may seem to be an odd appraisal in this context but it is clear to me that most managers are more comfortable discussing and managing the numbers than they are at leading their people through addressing the more challenging development requirements or what are commonly referred to as ‘soft-skills’.

Regular discussions surrounding results and the relationship to business targets with team members are common-place. Although relating the coaching session to results is important, challenging an individual to improve their results through highlighting the numbers does not, in itself, provide a platform or understanding of how to change the inputs that contribute to the results and outcomes. In my experience, most people will find other ways to simply meet their numbers, taking short-cuts and often demonstrating behaviours that are at loggerheads with business expectations and culture.

Ironically, these discussions often drive the type of behaviour and culture that the manager is trying to avoid by conducting the meeting in the first place. This relates to the anomaly between strategic thinking and tactical ability in that most managers find it easier to apply the day-to-day tactical elements (numbers and outcomes) than analysing the inputs and considering the bigger picture. This ‘safe-zone’ within the tactical-related realm of thinking, can be enhanced through skill gaps, fear or avoidance as the business KPI’s, outcomes and other results mostly stem from our effectiveness at leading and developing the skills, attitudes and attributes of your people. Most managers accept this rationale but their own fears and self-need to remain within their comfort zone means that they avoid addressing (the perceived) more difficult soft-skill essentials of their team.

So, the question remains, what comes first the strategic or tactical component? In terms of a strategic approach, the point is that most people focus their thoughts and energies at the tactical level, trying (or hoping!!) that the strategies will become more evident at a later date as progress occurs. This thinking is in complete contrast to the more effective methodology where development of a strategy must come first and the goals, direction and tactical actions flow from and towards the strategic concepts.

Factors such as identifying and acknowledging obstacles, discovery of potential solutions, developing a common purpose, understanding values, identifying benefits of improvement and ability to track progress, all form part of the broader concept. In each case these elements should all be drawn back to the strategic view. Relevant questions to ask yourself are:

  • Have you clearly stated what the problem is and considered what you are trying to solve in the first place?
  • Have you developed a strategy with enough context and depth for the tactical elements to be developed and aligned to?
  • Alternatively, have you moved into solutions mode too early, seeking possible responses to the issue at hand without understanding the broader issues and impacts?

As stated earlier, goal or process failure is often due to a lack of clear direction and early identification of the problem to be solved. Often this is referred to as a ‘shotgun’ approach where many ideas and solutions are put into place hoping that one or more will hit the mark and solve the problem(s).

Unfortunately this type of approach has many shortcomings, including cost-blowouts, confusion from poorly communicated actions and a lack of buy-in or reduction in discretionary effort from stakeholders and staff, amongst many other adverse outcomes.

Development of a strategy and the knowledge that there is a difference between strategic and tactical application is a significant topic, not just in the business world, but also in personal decision-making. I have only scratched the surface, however, hopefully this article has stimulated and challenged you to identify the differences between blindly taking action based on little fore-thought or strategic planning. There are many benefits in understanding the ‘bigger picture’ and identifying what you are working towards.

Without an ability to strategise thought into meaningful action you are most likely guessing; making assumptions; and ‘hoping more than knowing’ your future direction and the reasons why this path is the right one.

The good news is that with a change in thought-process and practice, you can develop skills in strategic thinking and implementation, allowing you to become one of the core drivers of change within your business.

As is always the case, the choice is yours!

The quality of leadership, more than any other single factor, determines the success or failure of an organization
Fred Fiedler and Martin Chemers

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strategy: Strategy @Wikipedia

(2) http://www.ccl.org/leadership/enewsletter/2011/MAYstrategy.aspx?sp_rid=&sp_mid=36650204: Center for Creative Leadership

3 Comments

Filed under Leadership, People Development, Strategy

3 responses to “Strategic Thinking and Leadership

  1. Very well said! I believe you are on the verge of offering us a clear distinction between being a good leader and becoming a great one.

  2. Pingback: 3 ways to understand the Business Environment – Linking Sustainability

  3. Pingback: Fiedler’s Contingency Model « Le Chouchou Du Professeur De La Communication

If this blog has meaning for you and you wish to comment...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s