In the Harvard Business Review, Nina Bowman asserts that strategic thinking – that is, the ability to think about the bigger picture for the organization and its ultimate success – is a mindset that must exist at every level of the organization, not just the boardroom. She proposes four key skill areas for professionals to develop in order to think strategically: knowing, thinking, speaking, and acting. To know is to observe and seek trends in your industry’s context and its business drivers. For example, who are the product leaders? What direction is innovation going in? What are the greatest threats and opportunities, and what means do we have at our disposal to address them? To think is to ask tough questions to draw out different possibilities, perspectives, approaches, and points of view – the very language of strategy. To speak is communicate core messages and frame strategic choices in a manner that makes the organization’s position relative to its possible futures clear to all affected and concerned. To act is to prioritize strategic issues and press related challenges with interested and affected parties without fear of conflict, recognizing that the prospect of change naturally elicits anxiety.
Failure to embrace professional development in these four areas, Bowman warns, can result in lost promotions and forfeited budget dollars out of an inability to make you or your unit’s strategic contribution clear. In today’s career environment, the temptation is to allow oneself to be overwhelmed by the transactional workload in a “head down” fashion and short change the requirement to think “head up” strategically. Furthermore, thinking strategically is not just an intellectual exercise; it’s imperative to take on the mindset of an explorer who aggressively scans the array of issues and trends that bear on strategy, and shares the insights gained with colleagues and stakeholders to test the quality of assumptions and ideas.
All four of these abilities are stressed in the model we teach in our Strategic Management certificate. Bowman’s “knowing” correlates to a thorough environmental scan that examines the political, economic, and other critical contextual dimensions for the organization. “Thinking” corresponds to developing the basic elements of business strategy: mission, vision, goals, and objectives. “Speaking” corresponds to communicating the strategy to internal and external stakeholders for the purpose of aligning behavior and resources to the strategy itself. “Acting” refers to engaging organization members’ participation in the strategic management process to position the organization to execute the strategy. In our certificate program in Strategic Management, we prepare students to contribute meaningfully and well to the strategic conversation by arming them with tools, techniques, and templates that enable strategic thought now and in the organization’s future. But a more basic approach that any professional can take is to simply ask: am I investing the time and effort needed to think strategically? And is that truly consistent with my career goals?
John Corso, DPA
John has been Academic Program Director and Lead Instructor for the Certificate in Strategy and Performance Management for 15 years. By profession, Dr. Corso is an internal management consultant for the enterprise planning organization of a major public sector agency in Washington DC, in which capacity he has served since 1999.