Leading with Strategic Thinking
By Aaron Olson and Keith Simerson
(Wiley, 291 pages, $36)
Much has been written about strategic planning. Much confusion persists.
Perhaps that is inevitable given how complicated strategic thinking is. From an academic perspective, strategic thinking is at the intersection of cognitive psychology, systems thinking, and game theory, according to consultants Aaron Olson and Keith Simerson. If that isn't daunting enough, they note that strategic leaders must be adept at integrating strategic thinking and leadership. They must not only form strategy but also execute it.
We tend to think of strategic leaders as gathering a team together at a retreat centre, prodding them into adopting a new approach, and then returning to the office to issue a detailed set of instructions for turning that vision into reality. But the authors of Leading with Strategic Thinking suggest there are actually four types of such leaders, depending on whether strategy formation is planned or emergent, unfolding and evolving over time, and whether the execution is directed from the top or collaborative. While we may each have an instinctive preference, ideally the approach should fit the situation.
Here they are:
These are the leaders we most associate with brilliant strategy – charismatic and colourful figures like Steve Jobs and Walt Disney, who drive strategy through personal insight. They combine emergent strategy formation – leaping on ideas that come to them rather than fixating on elaborate strategic planning sessions – with highly directive execution. Their strengths are that they tend to be insightful and inspirational but their weaknesses are impatience and a tendency to be difficult to work with.
"We find that the primary focus of visionary leaders is their own world view. By this we mean that their main (and sometimes only) priority is their vision, which serves as the centerpiece and the guiding principle for all their energy, perceptions, priorities, and actions. Often that vision is intertwined or even synonymous with a view of the world and how it does – or should – operate," they write.
When it comes to execution, these leaders go beyond vision to experimenting with ways to implement, while motivating other stakeholders to support their world view.
Strategy formation is planned and execution is directive as leaders use structure and process to attain their goals. General Electric has epitomized this with a top-down approach, and you also find it in the military and on sports teams. Directive leaders tend to be confident and decisive but unfortunately also controlling and removed.
"Directive leaders are highly intentional in every aspect of how they perform their role," the authors note. Such leaders set direction, establish roles and processes, motivate others, monitor performance, and intervene and adjust. The authors stress directive leaders don't just tell people what to do, as the title might imply, but actually spend as much time encouraging as they do telling.
These leaders empower others to achieve strategic objectives, mixing emergent strategy formation with participative execution. 3M is a model, allowing staff 15 per cent of time to explore ideas of their own choosing and then letting strategy emerge from the best ideas. The ideal incubating leaders are called perceptive and encouraging but weaker ones are seen as providing poor direction. While both visionary and incubating leaders seek to capitalize on new ideas and disruptive change, visionary leaders make themselves and their own world view the centre of the creative process, while incubating leaders are to some extent outsiders looking in.
"They focus less on developing their own vision and more as a resource to others," they write. These leaders build networks, forming relationships in their area of expertise and beyond, assessing opportunities and diversifying their bets. For execution, they deploy resources where needed and create supportive mechanisms for staff.
These leaders rely on co-creation to achieve strategic ends, melding planned strategy formation with participative execution. An example is Nelson Mandela, who established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa and then encouraged citizens to play a part in its deliberations. The best are considered engaging and trustworthy although they can seem indecisive as they keep seeking out the opinions of more people. "In both strategy formation and strategy execution, these collaborative leaders distinguish themselves through a focus on participation," the authors note.
All strategic thinkers need to be competent at systems thinking, decision making, and managing risk. But in addition, each type requires different skills.
The authors explore these skills and other factors that can lead to success or failure at strategic planning. Their model and explanation of the four types is intriguing but unfortunately their storytelling is weak and writing a little stilted, so the reading is not as appealing as the concepts.
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Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter