Merge's Blog

Strategic thinking – both right-brain AND left-brain needed!

Last month, Terry Blaney joined us as a guest blogger with his thoughts on what it takes to really think and act strategically.  I promised we’d have him back to give us a follow-up post.  You will recall that Terry has been my business colleague for many years, going back to our years together at the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell in Canada.  Terry is now based in Shanghai, China where his thriving consultancy practice focuses on strategic thinking and planning, primarily to the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries.  In today’s post, Terry offers us a different perspective from what he said last time … well sort of!

In my previous post about strategic thinking, I talked about the three key character traits of future orientation, a penchant for action, and absorptive capacity.  I summed it up by saying that if we thought as children, with imagination, tinkering and endless possibilities, then we would have this strategic thinking capability aced!  Well I lied! Well, sort of … I just didn’t tell you the whole story.  I did that intentionally because I wanted first to appeal to the right side of your brain, the side that so many of us put in “park” as we engage in our day-to-day work. In truth, strategic thinking makes ample use of both hemispheres; I just wanted to make sure we didn’t let “the analyst” take too much control right away!

Strategic thinking is about dislocations – looking for them, creating them, thriving in a chaotic world. Strategic thinking is about change. This is diametrically different from strategic planning, which is all about structure and order, and creating alignment. Ultimately what we think about needs to get into a plan…but we need to be creative before we can be rational.

So, a quick recap – as strategic thinkers, we spend a good deal of our time thinking about the future, the end game, the likely outcomes, and how things could fit together in that world yet to be. And we are restless and hungry, and unsatisfied with the status quo, and the situation today. And we have this latent capacity where we are willing and able to absorb all kinds of data and information coming in, processing the relevant and discarding the rest. And all this of course, is backed up by our ever increasing business acumen gained from growing experience at work, and in life.

Now comes the interesting part…because the data comes in from everywhere – changes in the macro environment, technological breakthroughs, new competitors, shifts in consumer behavior, new regulations – all kinds of things can interrupt our flow and be a pivot for dislocation to occur. Nimble strategic thinkers take all of this in, and try to make sense of it. What they actually doing is generating a hypothesis of what must be happening, and why. This is not always obvious and so demands a great deal of intuition, coupled with a strong set of beliefs about the system and how things hold together. Ultimately, strategic thinkers make very good informed guesses, using their experience, and distilling it into valuable insights. And from this hypothesis comes the big payoff, which leads to options.

As we use our right brains to create alternatives, we need to evaluate, rank and prioritize them. This is where the left brain kicks into high gear, using two more traits of strategic thinking – the ability to focus and a willingness to take risk. Which leads to three critical questions – could we?, should we?, and would we?  It’s these three questions that take us through the strategy funnel from a world of possibilities to one of probabilities and ultimately to rational responses. Our analytical abilities allow us to focus our resources on those priorities that are aligned with our strategic intent while still holding an acceptable level of risk. Voila … a new strategy outcome emerges!

I hope that my two blog posts have given you an insight into what actually contributes to good strategic thinking so that you can be more self-aware and in the moment, so that you can reflect, and hopefully improve by being more cognizant of what you should and shouldn’t do.  You should be thinking strategically no matter what your current job is or where you are in your professional career.  This is as much a skill for living as it is for surviving in the business jungle.

Terry Blaney is an independent consultant living in Shanghai and practicing his craft in the Asia Pacific region for 4 1/2 years. His areas of focus are leadership development, business strategy and strategic thinking, with clients in the energy, pharmaceuticals and finance sectors. Prior to consulting, Terry enjoyed close to 30 years in the Royal Dutch Shell business, in a multitude of leadership and executive capacities.  You can reach Terry via e-mail: rtblaney AT (replace AT with @)

Well, what are your thoughts now that Terry’s given us the full picture?  Has he missed anything?  What have you found to be the critical factor(s) in successful strategic thought and action? Please add your Comments below.

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