Five elements of thinking strategically

Five elements of thinking strategicallyThese picture shows the five elements essential for thinking strategically as described by Jeanne M. Liedtka. She is professor of business administration at  University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business and former chief learning officer at United Technologies Corporation.

I’ve never met Dr. Liedtka, but I’m madly in love with her five elements that define thinking strategically.

One of the frustrations I’ve had with most of the definitions of strategic planning is that rarely is the concept “strategic” or “strategic thinking” well-defined. (I feel the same way about the use of the term “policies” which is why I’m drawn to the framework for policy creation as espoused by policygovernance guru John Carver)

In many definitions, strategic planning is defined as a process that employs “strategic thinking” or “strategies.” I guess the definers believe everyone inherently knows strategy when they see it. If only that were so.

I learned a great word in school many years ago: “tautology.” No it’s not a fish (that’s tautog).

A tautology is an explanation that uses the same or similar terms to explain what it means, like calling strategic planning a planning process that creates strategies.

Apparently Dr. Liedtka was also frustrated by these definitions, so she wrote an article* to explain what thinking strategically was really all about.

So what are these five essential elements of strategic thinking that she identified?

1. Intent focused

Dr. Liedtka says: “Strategic intent provides the focus that allows individuals within an organization to marshal and leverage their energy, to focus attention, to resist distraction, and to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal.”

This concept implies both having an overarching goal or direction (you might call that your vision) and making that goal a conscious focus or, in this wonderful definition for intent I found online “the act of turning your mind toward” an outcome or object.

In my approach to our sector, this intent is the change that we want to see in the world. A change that we are completely passionate about, that channels our every action for the future.

2. A systems perspective

Think ecosystem.

An exercise I do with my graduate students that you can try for your organization is to describe all of the various systems in which you exist. Their answers start with the classroom and move beyond to the higher education system, to legal, natural, family, or body systems, to global economic and financial systems — and they operate in all of them.

So does your organization. So, to get good at strategic thinking, you need to try to understand the way your world works and how that affects you. Because you can’t really know everything, you’ll have to take your best shot at gathering the right information and prioritizing the components of systems that are most likely to affect the way you work now and into the future.

It really does help though to be curious about just about everything.

While you might be an expert in interpreting the particular “business ecosystem’  in which you operate, how well do you understand what is happening culturally or politically that might also influence your future?

Read a lot. Explore new things. Talk to people outside your organization and outside your discipline as well as the people who know your system the best.

3. Thinking in Time

Liedtka suggests strategic thinkers ask this question:

“Having seen the future that we want to create, what must we keep from our past, lose from that past and create in the present to get there?”

When you think strategically, you are always connecting the past to the present to the future. You learn from the past and use that learning to make predictions. You look at the present to assess the gap between where you are now and where you want to end up.

While your focus is always on the future, you can only act in the present.

This concept always makes me think of H.G. Wells The Time Machine.

4. Intelligent Opportunism

Remember the old exercise the SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats.)

Well, SWOT thinking never ends for those thinking strategically. Strategic thinkers are able to spot and react to great new opportunities as they arise. They understand that the world is dynamic and they are open to change to reach their vision.

Intelligent opportunism also implies that you dig deep into your organization to hear from many perspectives. Ideas and knowledge are valuable wherever they exist — but you’ll need to look and listen to benefit from them.

5. Hypothesis driven

Finally, Dr. Liedtka says, “strategic thinking mirrors the scientific method… it is both creative and critical in nature.”

As strategic thinkers, we create hypothesis, those questions that start “What if…?”  or “If… then?” — questions that enable us to imagine multiple scenarios, analyze them as best we can based on the knowledge we’ve accumulated and then test the best hypotheses (experiment). As we act, we learn from our experience to create new hypothesis for future action.

Thus, strategic thinking dissected and explained. To learn how to apply this in your business, get a a consultation with Andrew Defrancesco.

Thank you, Jeanne M. Liedtka, for your article and an extraordinary framework to articulate what strategic thinking is all about.


* The article is “Strategic Thinking: Can it be Taught.” You’ll find it in the Feb 1998 edition of the journal Long Range Planning (another interesting journal I’ve just discovered).

I’d also like to recommend a wonderful short paper from 1999 called Strategic Thinking: A Discussion Paper. It was prepared by Lawrence Eton for the Public Service Commission of Canada and is readily available online. It summarizes much of what is in the original article and also relates strategic thinking to strategic planning.

5 responses to Five elements of thinking strategically

  1. KB

    YES! Every organization can benefit from a healthy dose of strategic thinking, at every level. Thanks for sharing simple tactics that we all can incorporate into our leadership repertoires.

  2. Sandy Rees

    I think so many nonprofits consider “strategic thinking” complicated and hard, so they just don’t do it, which is a huge mistake. EVERY nonprofit needs a solid idea of where they’re heading with a clear vision and SMART goals.

    I had so many nonprofit folks asking for this kind of help that I wrote a workbook called the “Simple Success Fundraising Plan.” It’s a step-by-step method for creating a written plan using lots of worksheets and templates.

    Sandy Rees
    Fundraising Coach


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