Cultivating Strategic Thinking as a Strength

May 19, 2008

A recent Harvard Business Publications article by Michael Watkins, titled, How to Think Strategically, raised the question “are great strategic thinkers born or made?”

His answer was that while people range in talents, strategic thinking is a skill that can be honed through positive management of staff. Thankfully, he includes the following (summarized) concepts as valuable tools for building your capacity for strategic thought:

  • Immersion: Placing yourself in a totally new environment and giving yourself enough time to wrap your head around how it works.
  • Apprenticeships: Low-risk environments where students are taught one-on-one.
  • Simulations: “Manageably-complex” environments which can be “wound back” if needed to provide a complete understanding.
  • Game-theory training: Another type of simulation that examines how players work to manage limited resources and competing interests.
  • Case-based education: Learning systems and formulas to frame strategic thinking.
  • Cognitive reshaping: Mental exercises which are intended to create new thinking paterns.

While each is definitely worth further investigation, I found the discussion it created in the comments extra-useful- especially this excerpt from Matt Moore, of “Engineers Without Fears”:

Training & apprenticeships are good. Strategic thinking begins by looking at the impact of your activities outside your immediate task focus. “That’s not my job” or “I’m far too busy to think about what I’m doing” are the enemy of strategic thought. First line managers identify & nurture early attempts at strategic thinking among their staff (and those early attempts will be all over the place) then that is an important first step. A significant minority of managers do not do that however – and those embryonic strategic thinkers are lost.

What’s your trick for developing strategic thinking? Let us know and we’ll include it in a roundup.


  1. Roger Jolley says:

    It is ironic that many a budding strategic thinker might have gotten involved in criminal activities when their talent wasn’t rewarded or it was interpreted as smart-eleck and rebuked with a “get back to work” manner.

    The vast majority of company owners and managers I’ve worked for feared their workers and seemed threatened by any advice, especially an insightful strategic suggestion. It seemed I knew too much about their business or threeatened their position or something.

    Several ‘smart’ people I have known have ended up in bad circumstances essentially of their own making, but I wonder how many of them might have been saved by an opportunity and recognition.

    I had a bookkeeping client who bought pizza sauce and rented a small storage unit. He delivered to local pizza shops. A kid I knew as a boy sold pot. He bought in bulk, warehoused and delivered, just my client did years later with pizza sauce. The same process, different perceptions about opportunity. I think they both had about the same investment.

    Of course, it would seem that a talented strategic thinker whould find a way to think him or her self out of the funk but discouragement and difficult circumstances can lead one away from formal opportunities for employment.

  2. Gordon says:

    Strategic thinking is greatly facilitiated by the question ‘why’ and looking at things as systems (with a purpose) rather than activities.

  3. Kiran Arsada says:

    Common sense

  4. Warren Levy says:

    A clear, well-articulated objective is the starting point for strategic thinking. With that, you can insist — to yourself and others: “If this is our objective and it is important to us to achieve it, how will that actually happen despite all the distractions, obstacles, push back, competition and confusion we may face?” Now, there’s a compelling focus and reason for strategic thinking.

  5. Ed Adkins says:

    @roger jolley: wow- you bring up a great point- when is strategic thinking NOT rewarded? I think you just gave me a blog post. thanks!

    @gordon & @kiran: thanks for your comments as well

    @warren levy: Also great point. Now, getting everyone to adopt that thinking may be tricky, but as you said that compelling focus is quite a start.



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