Strategic thinking is a process that defines the manner in which people think about, assess, view, and create the future for themselves and others. Strategic thinking is an extremely effective and valuable tool which can be applied to arrive at decisions that can be related to governance, administration, military planning, businesses and even to personal life.
The greatest and most successful organisations in the world over many years and decades, think ahead and encourage great strategic thinking in their governance, administration, policy making and even in their business plans. A sustainable successful future requires much more than simple policy formulation or simplistic planning, no matter how big or small the policy or plan or business model is: and a major requirement for sustained and comprehensive success and growth is strategic thinking.
Author:Brigadier Puneet Ahuja
What is Strategic Thinking
To think strategically means to see and understand the bigger picture of what the organisation is, where it needs to go, and how it will get there. It means anticipating opportunities and challenges and utilizing that knowledge to guide the organisation. An effective leader needs to think strategically and this is valid in all spheres of life - be it a service, civil servant, diplomat, military planner or a corporate businessman. Ideally, the leader will help the team to see and understand the bigger picture even as team members focus on the day-to-day work.
Some of the key elements of a strategic plan are:
Components of Strategic Thinking
In simple terms, strategic thinking consists of three phases that identify and clarify: 1) where we are now; 2) where we want to be; and 3) how we will get there. It has six common components which are given in the succeeding paragraphs.
Tools for Analysis. There are a number of different tools used for analysis in strategic thoughts. The most common is the SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats). A SWOT analysis helps to begin (or continue) on a path and help figure out about what’s working and what’s not working as also dwell upon issues which need to be considered for future planning.
Vision. Vision identifies the direction of the organisation. Vision creates a picture of the organisation’s future. All members of the team are more effective when they know where they are headed—inspired by a clear, challenging, and meaningful vision.
Values. Values reflect the culture of an organisation. If the culture doesn’t work, your strategy can’t work. More importantly, clarity regarding values allows the organisation to tap into those values to foster a culture that supports its purpose and vision, rather than one that undermines them.
Strategic Purpose/Mission. Strategic purpose can be described as the heart of blueprints for the future. Strategic purpose offers a clear understanding of what is needed to be done. When everyone on a team or in an organization understands the essential reason for existence, the hundreds of daily decisions about work to be done— that must be made in a complex organization—are informed and guided by that common purpose.
Key Goals. A fundamental component of any strategic process is to identify those priorities that will move the team forward. Key goals play the vital role of connecting the team’s ongoing work with the broader purpose and vision because they help define where the team is going in specific, actionable ways. These can be deemed as signposts towards achieving the strategic mission.
Action Planning. A great strategy alone does not ensure success—but the effective implementation of a good strategy does. At times, strategic thinking and planning processes fail because a well laid out action plan is not worked out. Action planning clarifies the ways in which our daily work will help move the goals forward. In his book, Collaborative Strategic Planning, Patrick Sanaghan provides some helpful prompts to frame the action planning.
Importance of Strategic Thinking
Strategic Thinking can change the future of any organisation from the national level to an individual level. It offers clarity of purpose, overall direction, and priority goals or objectives which are often cited characteristic of teams and organisations. The ability to see and articulate the bigger picture (Who are we? Where are we headed? What do we hope to accomplish and how will we accomplish it?) is a fundamental expectation of leadership. Many experts opine that this skill lies at the heart of effective leadership at all levels.
Effective strategic planning as a result of strategic thinking, can help give focus to organisations and departments in the civil service, preparing them for changes in society and the economy, and helping them to become proactive rather than reactive. Civil servants and bureaucrats should implement strategic planning within their organisations to help prepare for the unexpected as best they can.
Similar to the facets of governance and administration, strategic thinking is required to be nurtured in every organisation. It is a universally acknowledged fact that the most successful enterprises today, are the ones that have fostered a strategic thinking culture. It brings about several advantages, some of which are enumerated below.
Clear Vision. A good strategic plan helps ensure that everyone within an organisation is reading from the same page and working towards the same vision.
More Proactive. Discussing and planning for changes and challenges that the organisation may face in the future, prepares the organisation to a large extent and make the future less uncertain. Resultantly, decision makers at all levels do not end up reacting to situations but will be one step ahead as they would have already proactively considered various contingencies and options.
Improved Efficiency. Being prepared for future developments enables everyone to react to change quicker to improve the organisation’s efficiency. Having clearly defined goals and objectives to work towards also helps teams and individuals to align and focus their day-to-day work with the organisation’s overriding objectives.
DEVELOPING THE ART OF STRATEGIC THINKING
Strategic planning is one of the most important factors that drive superlative results. The most successful enterprises today are the ones that have fostered a strategic thinking culture. There was a time when the onus of driving change in an organisation was solely the responsibility of the CEO. In today’s dynamic and competitive world, the entire organisation from the soldier to the general is responsible for driving change. Employees across the organisation are expected to pitch in with ideas, think out-of-the-box, look beyond short-term goals and focus on innovation.
This brings up the moot question i.e. Is it easy to develop a strategic thinking organisation? The answer is a definite No! And yet, as discussed above, it is absolutely necessary. There are several methods suggested by various academicians as routes to develop strategic thinking. One of the simplest is a nine step route also called the 9s steps given by Simon Woodton and Terry Horne in their book ‘A Nine Step Approach to Strategy and Leadership
Some other practical and easily implementable measures which can be undertaken to help develop a strategic thinking organisation are given below.
Laying Down a Concrete Vision and Mission Statement. This is the first building block in creating a strategic thinking organization. A well-defined strategic plan, which includes the national / ministerial or organisation’s vision, mission and core values, helps provide a clear direction and focus for the entire organisation. Once the plan is defined, it needs to be executed throughout the organisation by linking to tactical actions with resource assignments and timelines. When everyone knows what is expected of them and how they can align their day to day activities to meet greater organisational goals, the operational actions of an organisation becomes more streamlined and efficient.
Encourage Proactive Problem-Solving Behavior. As Assegid Habtewold wrote, ‘Rather than micro-managing to resolve every problem, create the right atmosphere, process, and system that facilitate effective problem solving’. In other words, strategic thinking has to become a way of life for the ministry / organisation/ department. If activities that require strategic thinking are a regular part of a bureaucrat/ administrator/ employees’ day, over time, it will become a positive habit. An organisation needs to encourage proactive problem-solving behavior to help civil servants/ military planners and managers develop the habit of thinking strategically. One way to encourage such behavior is to provide them with the necessary feedback and progress on strategic actions regularly, thus empowering them to make better decisions.
Use of Technology. Cloud-based technologies like innovative strategy execution software, make it easy to implement and communicate strategic plans throughout the organisation and provide insight into the health and progress of the strategic plan.
Fostering a Collaborative Culture. In many organisations, it is only the leadership team who are well-versed with the issues being faced by the organisation. This effectively reduces the options which can be generated to solve problems and an inadequate tapping of the collective experience of the organisation. An organisation thus needs to create a collaborative culture where there exists a strong sense of community, relatively low barriers to participation, informal mentorship structures and support for creating and sharing one’s ideas. Solutions come from knowledge. When employees have access to information relating to the organisation’s goals, results and challenges, they will be better placed to offer relevant solutions. Employees flourish when they feel they have a voice and they can see their work as part of the bigger picture. Regular interactions between the various tiers of the ministry/ organisation facilitate such resource tapping and communications.
Mentor the Managers. Organisations can’t afford not to have a mentorship program. It is but obvious that the skills of an organisation’s human resources are the most valuable asset be it bureaucrats, diplomats, generals or corporate heads. Mentoring programs provide a means of cultivating those skills throughout the organisation. To be the best, the civil servants and officers will have to learn from the best. By connecting the officers with mentors who have a highly strategic way of thinking, the organisation will be able to foster strategically-thinking personnel who further in turn will be able to mentor juniors within the organisation.
Recognize and Reward. Recognition serves as a tool for reinforcing the behaviour that drive an organisation to excellence and gives a vital boost to employees’ performance which has a ripple effect that reaches beyond the recipient thus benefitting the entire organisation. Humans, regardless of their level in the bureaucratic or administrative hierarchy, who are appreciated, show greater job satisfaction and drive to improve. Through recognition, strategic thinking behaviour can be positively reinforced increasing the likeliness of reoccurrence.
Incorporating Strategic Thinking into Training and Development Programs. There is a need to openly encourage strategic thinking among the workforce. For doing so, conducting training programs, orientations or seminars etc play an important role wherein the concept of strategic thinking is deliberated upon and tools to enhance individual capability of strategic thinking can be discussed and even practiced. Case studies on how such thinking has been applied in other countries and even organisations can prove to be an effective tool.
Exposure to Diversity. Another means to help develop strategic thinking is to expose the personnel to as many of these different methods, which will help them learn more and develop their own independent thinking method. One way to do that is to allow the officers (say bureaucrats) to collaborate, interact and spend time with professionals from other fields, such as computer experts, artists, designers, and the like, instead of limiting their exposure to fellow bureaucrats. Being exposed to different types of people will open up worlds previously unknown to them.
STARTEGIC THINKING IN THE INDIAN CONTEXT
Historically, we are a nation with kings who displayed great strategic thinking. Chanakya espoused strategic thinking in statehood. However, post independence, our nation has become infamous for its lack of strategic culture. Releasing over 90,000 prisoners of war after they surrendered in 1971 without securing commensurate returns, is a cruel reminder of our naivety. An old joke goes that the government is so disjointed that often the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, implying that the various ministries work in isolation and without considering the impact of their actions/ rules or policies on the other organs of the government. Fortunately, owing to a strong dispensation in the Union Government, a definitive change has come about in the strategic culture. Yet, we have a long way to go in the process of strategic culture, all of which commences with strategic thinking.
As India gains its rightful place in the world order, it faces complex, diverse and unpredictable domestic and global challenges. To address these multifarious challenges, there is a need for a well thought out strategy. The process by we tackle these challenges, and by which policy government expenditure is made and its decisions are aligned with the nation’s long term interests, is the process of ‘strategy’ which in turn is discerned from the policy choices and decisions that the Government makes. For these policies to be effective, coherent and well rounded, duly aligned with the long term national interests, there is a need to carefully evaluate the policies and set course on a strategy to achieve desired aims.
For the civil servants, the impact on proposed policy should be weighed on issues under the acronym of TEMPLES. The impact of a policy on the seven aspects enumerated below will offer a good filter and guide to formulating strategy.
Reports / Papers
Speeches / Online Sources