One of the things I have learned from being an academic is the value of thinking strategically. Having spent time on at least two executive boards I can tell you that we really do not understand what strategic thinking is all about. In this post today I am going to briefly introduce the topic of strategic thinking then explain how you can begin to make use of this powerful method of thought.
Strategic thinking is all about seeing the big picture, knowing what it means and being able to act on it. To think strategically means you are able to know how the parts related to form a whole. A Greek word used by Arthur Koestler and Peter Checkland is the term ‘holon‘. A holon is a ‘whole part’ a word we really don’t have an equivalent meaning for it our language. It means that each part is a whole that consists in itself and is simultaneously a part of another whole. Put simply: strategic thinking begins with seeing the world as made up of wholes that interact to form other wholes and so on. When we break thinks down into parts we slip into analysis of a singular whole without paying attention to context or external substance.
This means as we learn to appreciate wholes, things will emerge forming a discernible pattern in our thinking. Ever been watching a movie and suddenly realised how the smaller wholes fit into the bigger wholes towards the end of the movie? If you have been paying attention you would have noticed how the smaller details form a pattern, which in turn forms deeper patterns and so on. In systems thinking they call this emergence. The emergent hierarchical order that forms from other smaller emergent hierarchies. To think this way means we recognise patterns and wholes in our lives as being connected to a deeper or ‘higher’ order of structures and wholes.
Being Strategic versus Being Analytical
When we are analytical we break down wholes into smaller parts to work out cause and effect. Put simply, when we analyse a problem we are attempting to understand the causal structures that it consists of in order to change it. Imagine your watch just broke. The system no longer works. What’s the first thing you do when attempting to the fix the watch? You break down the set of steps required to repair it. You open the watch, check the battery and so on. You begin to diagnose the problem, design solutions and implement them. You are into ‘analysis’ mode now and are no longer thinking strategically. You have gone from the strategic level, to the analytical level. Now the watch is working again! You have fixed it! You put all the parts back together again and now you are thinking strategically again. You are seeing the connections between the bits and how they all work (or don’t) together.
When we are being strategic we are interested in how wholes interact versus how parts interact. A strategic thinker is not interested in details until they have to be. A details person is forever caught up in analysis of the present problem is unable to relate things back to the whole. Someone who thinks ‘bigger picture’ is able to switch between details (if needed) to strategy and so forth. So how do I think strategically?
Rumours at work: an example of strategic thinking
I had a visitor to my office the other day telling me about the developments in the Australian academic community. Presently we are going through the RQF (Research Quality Framework) and universities are busy organising researchers into smaller cubes so they can ‘measure’ quality. One person told me that they don’t make the list so they will loose their job. An another person told me the exact same thing a few days earlier. By themselves, these rumours are merely speculation, hearsay and second guesses. But, if enough people say them we have a work issue. The fear of not being adequate under the new conditions the RQF seeks to put on us. This level of fear is fast becoming an academic meme! If I went through the university and asked people I worked with: are you scared of the RQF? A majority would express some concern. On an individual level we have personal fear. On a strategic level we have ‘fear by numbers’. It becomes a trend and before you know it’s a strategic problem.
How do I think strategically
Thinking strategically begins with moving from analysis to the big picture. How do you do this? There are some helpful ways in which you can do this as I have previously discussed. The best way for me to explain it is for you to practice it. Take the issue of climate change for example. How can we look at that strategically? First, we top ‘localising’ our thoughts and begin to look for the big connections. So, if we are talking climate change that means looking at how something generates climate change. Second, we look for ‘wholes’ (not scapegoats) that could be considered to be things that help generate climate change. These wholes are presently believed to be: pollution, green house gases, the atmosphere and so on. Now that we have these things we can begin to look and how they relate to the bigger issue we have identified and see how pollution creates climate change and so on. Now, I know someone reading this has just said,’Yeah but wait a minute what about those scientists that don’t think climate change is caused by pollution.’ Well, you have realised the most important thing about strategic thinking.
Strategic thinking is perspective shifting
Most people, like Peter Senge, opt for a view of the whole as being taken for granted. I don’t. I think the bigger picture of anything is tied to cultural relevance, popular media and so on. Take the publishing industry for example. What a rort that is! A few people get paid millions of dollars whilst the rest of us languish away in obscurity! Is that fair? No, it’s not. Is there another perspective we could implement that could make it fairer? Of course. Why don’t we implement it? Because we are a lazy pack of gits that’s why! There is no greater power than social mobilisation. None. That said, that’s my perspective… I doubt Stephen King shares the same view. In strategic thinking you need to realise that each strategic solution is tied to a viewpoint which in turn emulates strategic realities. In other words, my solution of climate change has two alternatives it’s greenhouse gases versus it’s something else. Both are views based on opinions, conjecture and research.
I believe this is where most people miss it about strategic thinking. It is in reality learning to see different bigger picture perspectives, how they do such perspectives effect me and how can I understand them better. Climate change could be caused by greenhouse emissions. Are there any other strategic points of view that we can use to understand it as a contrast or a complement to our existing view. If we can why don’t we make use of them. Sense making means we put what we think over the world in order to understand it. Climate change is an observable event. We can see it. However, what is really making it happen could be more than one thing. If we accept one perspective totally we may neglect others that are contradictory and thereby exclude possible answers to our problem. We have perspective blindness if we don’t take into consideration more than one possible version of events.
An example of strategic thinking and perspectives
A good example of perspective shifting and strategic thinking is the current Australian election campaign war on workchoices. If you aren’t from this country workchoices is the culmination of the deunionisation of the government towards individual contract arrangements supervisied by a federal commission. In the old days you would have a dispute go the steward and fight and that would be that. These days the ever growing trend is towards lawyers and an independent commission. The Coalition (Liberal/National) government is telling us we need to even further away from unions where as the Labor party is saying that people don’t want workchoices they want more protection (though they are not really forthcoming on what they plan to do instead of unions).
Now the advertising campaigns have been horrible this campaign. So many that are really petty squabbling. The Coalition are targeting the Labor party saying that most of them are ex-lawyers or union officials which in turn implies a bias towards returning to the unions. The Labor party is arguing that workchoices is terrible and the government promised not to do it then did. Both of these views are based on seperate versions of what they take reality to be. Both are informing us that the world is this way yet each point of view comes from a personal perspective or bias. Who are we to believe? One side shows us the damages unions did to the ‘economy’ the other shows us the damages workchoices has done to Australian worker. Two entirely different strategic realities. Now, enter the greens.
The greens have attacked both sides of the government and launched a campaign saying that both of them have lost touch with the worker. Their perspective is we will take action rather than sit around and point the finger. Then of course, there’s Family First, the Christian Democrats, The Democrats, The independents and so on. These are all different views as to the cause and solutions of problems. The most important point about strategic thinking is that you must be able to switch between different perceptions of reality and use different thinking modes at all times.
How can I apply this to my life
Remember, the goal is not to be a cynic but to be someone who looks at the bigger picture views and learns to gain insights from all of them. If you accept one bigger picture view it will obscure you from seeing others that may help you work things out. You begin to apply this to a problem when you stop taking the local view and begin taking a bigger picture understanding of how things work. So if you have an issue try to ask this question: how can I understand the strategic factors at work here? What am I dealing with that I can change and can’t change? If I can change it what can I do about it? If I can’t, then how can I make things so this problem won’t effect me? And so on. You begin to apply strategic thinking as you come to understand your individual concerns as part of a bigger picture. At work you are constantly the victim of things your boss is doing. How does that strategic impetus effect you? Think about it and you will begin to see things from the strategic view.
The one thing I hope you take from this post today is an understanding of how things relate together and what that actually means for you. How does your life relate to the those around you? Think about that over the next week. Why not begin looking at the strategic direction your life is taking. What can you change on the higher strategic plain that will have a significant impact in years to come? Your attitude perhaps? Try this, I have found it helped me tremendously over the last few years.
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