“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”
- Michael E. Porter
When we started this great transformative journey in 2010 there was great debate among institutional leaders about the need for colleagues that were ‘strategic thinkers’. But what is a strategic thinker?
In my last piece we discussed the need to distinguish strategy from tactic, recognizing that much of the confusion rested on semantic differences (the term ‘strategy’ best being left to denote strategic goals, priorities or direction, not the full strategic plan), on not fully understanding that strategies are directional while tactics are not, and on not recognizing that we must first define the level in the organization we are referring to, for one person’s tactic is often another’s strategy.
But what about “Strategic thinking”? Strategic thinking refers to the ability to recognize the need for, and to identify, overarching strategies that may be used to address perceived challenges or to achieve an overarching goal.
Here are a few general principles to strategic thinking:
- Firstly, leaders who are strategic thinkers recognize when the need for a defined strategy exists… In other words, when response to a challenge in the environment mandates a clear action-oriented directional reaction.
- Secondly, strategic thinkers recognize that strategy is directional (the ‘where’), distinct from tactics which are operational (the ‘how’). As such, when formulating a strategy we should recognize that we are proposing a direction that we are heading towards… and a direction we are heading away from. Strategy is about deciding what to do… and what not do.
- Thirdly, effective strategic thinking requires a high level of objective perspective. Strategies generally address overarching, broad-based problems and trends that can only be identified through reflection and a certain amount of distance from the day to day issues. Alternatively, tactics are more granular and address specific questions or processes.
- Fourthly, strategic thinkers recognize that defining a strategy or strategic direction requires an understanding of level of the organization is being referred to. Do we want to address the challenges at the university level or at the departmental level? And who are we presenting our recommendations to? Colleagues above us in the ‘strategic hierarchy’ or colleagues we are responsible for? Because one person’s strategy is often seen as that superior’s tactic. Its one of the skills needed as we ‘manage up’.
- Fifthly, tactics must be formulated to meet strategic priorities… and must be executed in the correct sequence and timeline. Not all tactics in the tactical plan will be immediately needed, or even recognized, and different tactics may be used over time, making mid-course corrections to achieve the desired strategic goal.
- Finally, to ensure timely progression or attainment we must have well documented processes that help guarantee we the ‘close the loop’ in meeting our tactical plan, ensuring progression of strategic goal. For the best laid strategic plans will miss their mark if we fail to ensure we are delivering on and modifying the tactical plan accordingly.
And like many other skills necessary for effective leadership ‘strategic thought’ can, and should, be learned through thoughtful reflection and dedicated discipline. For without a careful, clear, feasible, and aspirational strategic plan we will fail to reach our highest goals.