The World of Strategic Thinking
It’s Not About Time

by Marie Kane

The tendency in Strategic Thinking and Planning is to equate more distant time frames with strategic thinking, but this is not necessarily the case. While it is true that strategy and it’s related issues can, and often do take longer periods to address and implement, the real determinant of strategic versus operational is the nature of what you are considering.

Strategic Thinking is about the “What” and the “Why”, that is what should we be doing and why, otherwise known as strategy. Strategic Planning considers the “How” and “When”, but at a very high level. Operational or Tactical Planning concerns itself with the specifics of how and when.

Another key to remember in Strategic Thinking is that you must be concerned with the futurity of the decisions you make, that is, what will the impact be in the future of this decision. A decision you are making today that may be implemented perhaps even in the next 3 to 6 months, is a strategic decision if it has future effects on the what and why of your business.

Conversely, there are operational issues of sufficient complexity that they may require more than a year to implement, but if they are about the how and when of your business they are still operational issues.

It is very important and, for most companies, very challenging to stay focused strategically in the course of Strategic Thinking and Planning.

Planning alone can be:

Reactive.......Planning via rear view mirror
Inactive........Going with the flow and just hoping for the best
Preactive......Prepare for the future
Proactive......Create the future, design it, and make it happen

Strategic Thinking makes it possible for a company to be proactive rather than falling by default into one of the other options indicated above, especially the first two.

Strategic thinking:

  • Creates a Strategy that is a coherent, unifying, integrative framework for decisions especially about direction of the business and resource utilization;

  • Uses internal and external data, qualitative synthesis of opinions and perceptions;

  • Is conscious, explicit, and proactive;

  • Defines competitive domain for corporate strategic advantage.

Many companies are so operationally focused that they miss major changes and trends that could bring new strategic opportunities. Strategy is the key outcome of a relevant strategic thinking process. The relationship between strategy and operations was beautifully laid out by Tregoe and Zimmerman in 1980 in their landmark work on strategy: Top Management Strategy: What It Is and How to Make It Work. Many strategic writers since have referred to this model.

With Strategy You

  • Out-think the competition, not out-muscle them operationally;

  • Craft a distinctive strategy that changes the rules of the game;

  • If you’re not the leader, don’t play by the leaders rules. Shifts in market share occur by changing the rules on the leader.

Strategic Thinking and Planning as Major Leadership and Management Roles

Companies often find it challenging to know how to best approach this complex issue and frequently fail to cover all the bases necessary to get any real benefit from the planning they do. There are many complex high-level challenges in this arena:

  • One of the most common dilemmas companies and CEO’s face is how to get beyond the day to day operational thinking to really thinking strategically.

  • There is the ever- present challenge of converting any strategic conclusions you’ve come to in to real world actions.

  • On top of all these challenges is how do CEO’s and Division and Department Heads appropriately involve others in this thinking and planning and how do you facilitate such a process.

  • If you successfully address all of these issues, you are still left with the challenge of determining what to measure and how to measure it so that you are in the driver’s seat instead of just hoping you’ll end up at your desired destination.

Some of these issues are the same issues leaders and managers in companies deal with every day, that is making sure action is taken and results measured. This has typically been easier to do when dealing with operational issues. Senior managers and leaders in any company have a major responsibility to carve out the time to do serious Strategic Thinking and Planning. In the absence of this, the decisions made day to day, or on the fly, strategically will take the company in directions you likely don’t want to go.

This is not something that can be delegated away. Only you can decide this is important enough that you will see to it that it happens for your company or division. You can set a course and steer consciously towards it, or you can let the winds blow you where they will. It goes without saying which is the better choice if you want to succeed over the long haul.

The CEO/President’s Special Role and Responsibility

It is the job of the CEO/President to ensure that real Strategic Thinking and Planning occur for the total company and each division. If the top management team does not get this message from their leader, then it often is not made a priority. Equally important is that the President participates fully in the process for the total company and as needed in the process for each division. No one but the President can share his thoughts on the purpose, vision and values of the company.

The President also has a unique perspective of the total organization that no one else in the company has: its history, successes, failures, strengths and weaknesses. The President must balance sharing his perspective with ensuring that all members of the top management team participate thoroughly in the process for the total company. Each division head has similar responsibilities in relation to his division.

Finally, the President can leverage the Strategic Thinking and Planning process for the whole company by providing input and perspective as well as support and coaching on the process for each division as they work the process in the way that is most productive for them.

Who should participate in the Strategic Thinking and Planning Process?

In general, for the total company the participants should be the top management team including all division heads and all functional department heads plus any others who hold key top management positions. The President may facilitate the process or delegate it, but always retains ultimate responsibility for it. For each division, a similar situation should prevail with the division head in this case in the role that the President holds for the company.

A Strategic Thinking and Planning process provides excellent opportunities for participation by others especially in the strategic environment analysis step. This typically includes some middle managers and others in the company with specialized knowledge, skill or enthusiasm for participating. Others outside the company may also be involved through getting their input at some points in the process. This could include suppliers and customers and others pertinent to the issues you are addressing in the plan.

Return on Investment

A Strategic Thinking and Planning Process requires some significant level of investment of time and energy, but the returns can be enormous, not only as a result of crafting successful competitive strategy, but also in growing the members of the team and others who participate in ways that make them more effective managers and leaders going forward.

Check it out! Do this quiz with your management team. Take a random sample of your employees. Find out how well your strategy and its underpinnings are understood by your people.

  1. Do you have a well articulated, clear statement of your Strategic Platform, including your Grand Purpose, Vision for the Future, Values by which you operate, Strategic Competencies and the Strategy that defines your direction, competitive advantage and what products, markets and customers/users you will and will not pursue?

  2. If you are the CEO/President, can you write this out and talk about it fluently without reference to notes?

  3. Can the top management team of your company write it and talk about it fluently without reference to notes?

  4. Does a clear understanding of your strategy guide which products, markets, geographic markets and customers/users that you will actively pursue?

  5. Does a clear understanding of your strategy guide which products, markets, geographic markets and customers/users that you definitely will not pursue, even if financially appealing?

  6. Has the top management team of your company ever sat down to get consensus on the strategy and direction of your organization?

  7. Is your company moving consistently in a clear direction?

  8. Do you know the basis for competitive advantage for your company?

  9. Do you know what your strategic competencies are and how they fit with your strategy?

  10. Do you consciously protect and leverage your strategic competencies?

Marie Kane is President of Executive Evolution. Since 1981 Marie has provided executive consulting and coaching services to help clients develop and implement the right strategy, leverage the company's human talent, and create optimal culture and communication. Her services include leadership, executive, management and team development, strategic and operational planning, employee selection, retention and development, change management, conflict resolution and a variety of profiles and assessments, including 360’s. She is the author of the TEAMS assessment and creator of “The Leaders Way - Discovering the Inner Art of Leadership” program. You can reach Marie at 770-461-3820 or Visit for additional insight.

Many more articles in Strategic Planning in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2006 by Marie Kane. All rights reserved.

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