If you want to develop and improve strategic thinking in your organization – you need to develop managers at all levels! While it’s important for the “C-suite”, it is much more effective when strategic thinking happens throughout the organization.
But how can managers best develop their skills in strategic thinking and leadership? To understand the requirements of strategic thinking training for managers, we first need to understand what it is and why it’s important. We’ll then look at the relationship to strategic management. And finally, I will provide some recommendations for moving forward with strategic thinking training.
What is Strategic Thinking?
Strategy has its roots in competition. So let’s take an example from the game of chess. It’s not wise to just rush in and take what you want. You have to think many moves in advance, and anticipate your opponents’ response to each of your own moves.
To an outside observer, it is not apparent what you are doing. You may even seem to be going backwards or making mistakes. But each move is carefully calculated to set you up for the next. Obviously, you need to be highly skilled in the game (the technical component). But you also need the emotional intelligence (a concept developed by Daniel Goleman) to be patient, stay focused on the long term and resist being drawn into a reactive move.
Consider that, from the perspective of business and other types of organizations, we need managers that can be like those chess masters. Strategic thinking in management requires individuals to shift their perspectives to the broader and long ranging aspects of the organization. And they need to become an expert in the “technical components” to determine how and when to take the appropriate steps along the way.
Strategic Thinking shifts our approach to management
Managers need to be aware of the forces that can impact your organization, and plan a course of action to create advantage and avoid risks. In particular, we have to stay aware of the potential disruptive, game changing events. Peter Scwhartz describes some of these larger ones in his book Inevitable Surprises.
Strategic Thinking in management also requires us to recognize and navigate the complex inter-dependencies in the business world. Dr. Peter Senge, expert on organizational learning, best describes this as Systems Thinking.
Why is Strategic Thinking Important?
Obviously, strategic thinking is essential in competitive games and military operations. For organizations, it’s necessary for achieving competitive advantage. Consider that all types of organizations (private enterprise, non-profit, government, academic, etc.) compete for different types of resources. Whether it’s customers, employees, volunteers or community support…. So we need to apply strategic thinking in management to gain long term, sustained advantage. In fact, I believe organizations will need strategic leadership skills to survive in a changing world!
This article by Robert Kabacoff in the Harvard Business Review summarizes research by Management Research Group (MRG 2013) providing evidence of the importance of strategic thinking. To quote author:
“We found that a strategic approach to leadership was, on average, 10 times more important to the perception of effectiveness than other behaviors studied. It was twice as important as communication (the second most important behavior) and almost 50 times more important than hands-on tactical behaviors.”
There are other articles out there which compare the differences between strategic thinking and “ordinary” thinking. But we need to bring this into the specific context of how and why you want to train your managers. Presumably, you want them to have the skills to promote strategic advantage for your organization. Or perhaps it is part of your overall Organizational Development initiative?
I believe it comes down to making sure that managers have both the technical skills and emotional intelligence to implement your long term vision. So be aware of the need to invest in Strategic Thinking training that focuses specifically on these skills. There are so many articles out there on what makes an effective leader. Many of these are “soft” skills. And while important, they are often difficult to quantify and evaluate.
Challenges with strategic thinking training
As you are no doubt becoming aware, strategic thinking training is very complex. There is no quick fix. It requires a fundamental change in the way managers look at their organization and their role in it.
It is influenced by an individuals’ skills – both tangible/technical (strategic management) and “soft”/emotional (leadership). I will expand on this more in the next section. Consider that each person has their own strength, which can be leveraged. But they may also need to develop new competencies. At minimum, managers need to be aware of their own strengths and weaknesses in this areas.
And finally, it can be difficult to measure the results of strategic thinking training – especially the soft skills. How do we know the level to which a participant has advanced their strategic thinking skills? What are the actual learning outcomes (and therefore value) from a strategic thinking course?
Breaking out of the traditional management mindset
Chances are, a manager is in their current position because they are good at managing. This includes providing structure, generating results, solving day to day problems, etc. So breaking out of that to start thinking and acting longer term can be counter-intuitive. For example – how do I take time out of my day to think strategically when there are so many operational problems I need to fix?
Developing Strategic Leadership skills may require managers to shift their identity from doers to thinkers. This can be challenging, both intellectually and emotionally. We tend to have an identity that has been established over time. And we can have deeply ingrained ways of thinking.
For example, I began my career in science. I was trained to think very objectively and analytically. It was all about structure, rigour and tangible facts. And this served me well in my role as a project manager. Planning, monitoring, measuring, report…. But when I progressed into more senior management roles, I was expected to think and act strategically. What did that really mean? Looking up the definitions really didn’t help much.
Relationship of strategic thinking and strategic management
In terms of becoming more of a strategic thinker, what helped me was to start with the more tangible aspects. That’s the realm of strategic management – the knowledge, processes and tools to gain that broader and more forward looking perspective. So for example, learning about Performance Management, I could then start applying those techniques in the workplace. And from those experiences, I could learn the “softer” aspects of leadership.
Strategic Management provides the structure for strategic thinking in organizations. It includes common language (vision, mission, values, performance measures, etc……). There are different branches, each with their own best practices and standards. But the end game is always about reaching your vision. And doing it in a way that provides the greatest advantage, and is sustainable for the longer term.
I believe that starting with strategic management is a great foundation for developing strategic thinking for managers in all types and sizes of organizations.
Components of a Strategic Thinking Training Program
The NMC Strategic Manager Learning System has been designed to build strategic thinking skills by introducing a range of specialized topics. Management training videos support students to learn practical tools and techniques. Each course is designed as a building block to create a strong foundation. Rather than attempting to absorb so much information at once, I believe it is best for managers to be able to complete and fully digest smaller components. This also gives them an opportunity to apply in the workplace and learn from those experiences.
Each of these strategic management courses is aimed at the same end game – gaining advantage to achieve your vision, while staying true to your mission and values.
Strategic Planning is a process that brings together strategic thinking and critical analysis. It looks at both the internal and external factors which will affect you over the next several years. How do these impact your organizational goals, and ultimately your vision? What is your advantage over your competition? This process of strategic planning applies an analytical framework to help you define the best path forward.
Provides the structure to implement your Strategy. You learn how the different components of strategic management fit together. And how to break down large goals into measurable targets and track progress. And you learn how to link each employees work to the bigger picture.
Considers those disruptive, game changing events that are coming – largely things which are outside your control. You then learn how to define a new “reality” and change your organization to minimize risk and leverage opportunity. And this is where we do dig in deeper to the emotional issues of leadership.
Skills and techniques which are necessary to deal with unexpected events. And at the strategic level, you are working with complex and complicated problems, with a lot of inter-dependency. The cause and effect are often difficult to determine. But there’s specific tools and techniques to help.
I have included this as my focus for Strategic Human Resource Management , as I believe it is one of those upcoming game changers for competitive advantage. The skills in this course will help develop leadership skills for any workplace, but particularly provide advantage in an increasingly international and diverse world.
And we have recently launched a course on Strategic Communication. Because strategic thinking must be combined with communication to make things actually happen.
How do we ensure results from strategic thinking training?
I have shared my views on starting with the more tangible strategic management training. Others may think differently. And I do realize the importance of the softer skills too. But regardless of which way you approach it, here’s my recommendations on how to evaluate an employee development program, and in particular, training in strategic thinking:
Look for clearly defined learning objectives
Rather than just promising to develop strategic thinking or leadership skills, learning objectives must clearly describe what you will be able to do as a result of taking the course. For example:
Participants will be able to apply the Performance Management Framework to plan and manage results for their business unit.
So at the end of the course, there should be no doubt as to whether you have met the objectives. The problem with vague promises is that they are very difficult to measure. So how do you know whether your training was successful? How do you know the value? Which leads to the next criteria…
Include an evaluation component
At minimum, there should be tools for self-evaluation. As mentioned earlier, managers need to start with an understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses. Each person will likely be at a different level, and have different knowledge coming in. So there’s no one size fits all!
With my e-courses, I have developed a self-assessment tool to help managers to determine which courses they need. And each course ends with a self-evaluation, such that managers can determine how well they met the objectives, and what they need to work on.
Likewise, you may want to set up some process for evaluating your impacts in the workplace. How will you recognize the impact of developing strategic thinking skills? What results do you want? How will you measure those results?
Include an applied (rather than just theoretical) component.
Knowledge is great, but applying it is where you truly gain skills in strategic thinking. So be sure the training includes some way to gain this experience. In my courses, I use case studies and reflective exercises. I also suggest some exercises that participants may choose to do (if appropriate) to gain experience.
Incorporate Trusted feedback
I’m a bit on the fence with this one. We always hear about the importance of feedback. But it can be ineffective or even damaging if not done properly. Some use the 360 degree surveys or other evaluation tool. The challenge with these complex skills is in finding effective performance measures. And in finding people that are truly skilled enough to provide meaningful evaluation and feedback. Perhaps you can find a mentor that demonstrates the qualities you are seeking? But make sure it is a good fit.
Set up for Continuous learning
Strategic thinking training isn’t a quick fix! It can take significant time before you really start to shift your thinking. Recognize that you need to keep building on your skills – both with “formal” training and through experience. Set small, incremental goals for learning rather than trying to do it all at once. Try something, reflect its effectiveness, and learn more about how you can do it better. Perhaps keep a journal on your progress. Sometimes we underestimate just how far we have come. So make sure you recognize and celebrate your progress along the way.
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