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What does it (really) take to think and act strategically

Terry Blaney has been a business colleague for many years, stretching back to the time we both worked for the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell in Canada.  Now Terry is based in Shanghai, China where he provides consultancy expertise in strategic thinking and planning to the oil, gas, petrochemical and other industries.  I recently reconnected with Terry during one of my speaking engagements in China, and it was a delight to both reminisce about our “Shell days” as well as catch up on all our new adventures.  Terry has graciously agreed to not only guest on the Turning Managers into Leaders blog today, but will also return next month on March 11 to give us a follow-up post.

As an active consultant and still avid learner in the business strategy space, the most frequent request I receive from clients is to enhance their strategic thinking capacity. Many think of this simply as adding some tools to existing skill sets, preparing their middle managers to become their future executive team. But what most fail to understand is that while I can spend time on teaching the process of strategic thinking, actual capacity to do so, just like the lion’s share of emotional intelligence, is something that is acquired and developed at an early age. If you didn’t do much of this as a kid, you likely won’t do much of this as an adult … at least effectively.

The strategic thinking process is quite straightforward … start with a sound foundation of your past (legacy), add your current business model, forecast your future (destiny), and then inject what’s changing in your environment to determine what might actually happen (generate hypotheses). Use this to formulate reasonably intelligent opportunities that stimulate innovation and enhance your business strategy going forward. But this is just the process. It’s how the process is used that is the magic underlying strategic thinking; which is exactly what should be the focus when it comes to building this capacity in our future leaders.

Powerful strategic thinking is a complex interplay among a number of traits. Business acumen, that wealth of accumulated experience and business moxie that comes from years in the trenches, plays a key role. But even more important in determining capacity for strategic thinking are three character traits.

The first is future orientation … the ability to actually live in the future, while living in the present. Great strategic thinkers spend a lot of time considering, imagining and fantasizing about the future. They have an incredible capacity to visualize and integrate ideas but in a more complex and future state. They spend a lot of time in their future view which is why it is so compelling to them … and it is dynamic, always shifting as new present day information validates or distorts it. It’s like living comfortably in two parallel dimensions. And this requires a great deal of imagination.

The second trait is restlessness and the need to act. Strategic thinkers have voracious appetites, they are always hungry, not just for new information, but they are incessantly dissatisfied with today. They look at the current state of business, the industry sector and business model, and almost always have a sense of unease. “It must improve, it has to improve, and maybe here are dozen ways to think about improving it.” So, they’re tinkerers. They take things apart, examine them, and rebuild them to look different. Just like playing with Lego blocks, they are always building something new, never happy with the current configuration.

The third trait is what I call absorptive capacity. Like a sponge, it’s the willingness and desire to absorb more and more and more information, synthesizing and integrating it with the current and future view of the world. Admittedly, most people today have heavy workloads and feel constrained in their ability to take on additional work. In fact, fatigue and a sense of being drained at the end of the workday are quite common. Yet, good strategic thinkers appear to be “always on”, fueled by seemingly limitless energy to take in new information from every source, always curious, always active, and stimulated by what is new. Big sponges with big curiosity who incessantly ask “why”, trying to make sense of things, are the dynamic thinkers for the future. Young children are known to always ask “why”? But with age, is seems that this ability is lost as people get more rigid in their views. But great strategic thinkers continue to hold on to this attribute of childhood, being curious, modeling, trying to make sense of things the rest of us gloss over.

These three traits are omnipotent in developing of strategic thinking capacity … they will always trump process and methods and playbooks. And these are all acquired and developed at an early age. Which means that to enhance strategic thinking skills in the leaders of tomorrow, one must go back to the foundations of imagination and curiosity and find ways to re-ignite and keep these alive into adulthood. Technical and operational experience gained in early years of employment leads to professional mastery, but our capacity to truly lead at a senior and strategic level depends on how we can leverage this knowledge through the personal traits we begin to develop as young children. So … if you want to be more strategic in your thinking, start thinking more as a child … not to be confused with thinking like a child. No doubt ,you’ll understand the subtlety of this difference.

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 gmail.com (replace AT with @)

Terry will be back next month to talk more about how to build your strategic thinking capacity.  But in the meantime, I’d love your thoughts and reactions.  What do you think?  Is Terry right?  What else does is needed to be successful at strategic thinking – do you have anything to add to his list of three key character traits?

7 thoughts on “What does it (really) take to think and act strategically

  1. I remember Terry from our days at Shell, and what an exciting career he continues to have! I found the excerpt on strategic thinking very helpful food for thought. Our volunteer Board continues to try to ‘finalize’ our non profit Strategic Plan that has been penned and in draft for 2 years!! As the chair of the board, our biggest obstacle has been difficulty in getting members truly engaged and moving in the same direction. Turnover plays a role in slowing down the process but I feel somewhat inspired by what Terry has written to frame our dilemma differently! Thank you to you both – it just goes to show what a small world it is when you can reconnect in China!!

  2. Hey June, Of course I remember you too! I’m glad you read the blog…this first one is only about traits in leaders…the next insert discusses skills and process, where we bring in reframing, reflection and systems thinking…you should think about whether you indeed have alignment on your strategic intent, this vision is compelling and shared, the relationship between targets and resources are sound, and the organization has enough sponge capacity to embrace the changes visualized…good luck.

  3. Wow! Thank you for sharing your fantastic insights Terry. I’m going to print this out and read it every day as inspiration.

    Cheers.

  4. You’re welcome June, I’m so glad that you found Terry’s post useful. This is why I love when other experts graciously agree to write a guest post (or in Terry’s case two guest posts); there’s always so much we can learn from each other!

    And yes, it is an amazingly small world!

  5. Marilyn, thank you. in this largely rational world we live in, it’s no wonder there is so much focus on processes and systems; but what matters most, and differentiates true leaders, are the less evident aspects…that burning desire in our tummy, that kaleideoscope we keep in our minds, that endless curiosity we acquire as children…our abilities to leverage and manifest these traits are what elevate the systems, processes and tools, to an art form that inspires all of us.

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