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When Innovating or Developing Strategy, Think Differently

October 9, 2012


Holly Green insists, “Great leaders think strategically.” [“How to Develop 5 Critical Thinking Types,” Forbes, 27 March 2012] She continues:

“They can understand and appreciate the current state as well as see possibilities. When dealing with today’s issues, they operate from a broad, long-term perspective rather than focusing only on short-term implications. And they can gather information and make decisions in a timely manner.”

Although I suspect that most people would rank strategic thinking high on a list of qualities they would like to see in chief executive officers, the sad truth is that many CEOs spend too much time dealing with short-term issues because they know that they may not be around for the long term. For several years now, the average tenure of CEOs has been shrinking. Last year “the average tenure of a CEO declined to 8.4 years.” [“Average Tenure of CEOs Declined to 8.4 Years, The Conference Board Reports,” The Conference Board, 12 April 2012] A decade ago, the average tenure was “approximately 10 years.” A few years back, a study indicated that a CEO’s tenure is closely tied to short-term stock performance, which indicates that many stockholders don’t seem to care much about strategic thinking. [“CEO Tenure, Stock Gains Often Go Hand-in-Hand,” by Joann S. Lublin, Wall Street Journal, 6 July 2010] For this discussion, however, we’ll assume that being a strategic thinker is both an important and appreciated quality of a good CEO. Green asserts, “Strategic leaders know how to strike a balance between visualizing what might or could be and an effective day-to-day approach to implementation.” She continues:

“They can look into the future to see where the company needs to go and what it will look like once they get there. And they can do this while making sure the right things get done on a daily basis. This type of strategic leadership requires five different types of thinking. Knowing when and how much to utilize each one is the hallmark of great leaders.”

In past posts about innovative thinking, I’ve made a similar point. The best innovation takes place when a number of perspectives are applied to a challenge. This can be done in any number of ways. One can assemble a team of people from different disciplines. I really like this approach because a multi-disciplinary team brings much more to the table than just different perspectives. If such a team is not possible to assemble, the next best thing to do is to assemble a team of people who are known to have different viewpoints on a subject. If that approach is not possible, creativity gurus suggest forcing people to look at a problem from different perspectives by making them wear “different hats” during a series of discussions. For example, one discussion about a particular challenge might be centered on process, another on people, another on finances, and so forth. Green suggests that strategy development can also benefit by cultivating five different kinds of thinking in executives: critical thinking, implementation thinking, conceptual thinking, innovative thinking, and intuitive thinking. Concerning critical thinking, Green writes:

“Critical thinking is the mental process of objectively analyzing a situation by gathering information from all possible sources, and then evaluating both the tangible and intangible aspects, as well as the implications of any course of action.”

In the age of big data, “gathering information from all possible sources” is a gargantuan task that will inevitably involve business analytic software. Cloud computing services are essential for making all of the necessary data available to executives. Executives in different divisions are likely to be working at cross purposes if they each use different sets of data to plan strategy. Concerning implementation thinking Green writes:

“Implementation thinking is the ability to organize ideas and plans in a way that they will be effectively carried out.”

A strategy that is not carried out is no strategy at all. As I have pointed out in past posts on innovation, if an idea doesn’t make it into the marketplace, it isn’t an innovation. The innovation formula is: innovation = new x valuable x realized. Creative people aren’t necessarily good business people. That’s why creative individuals often partner with people who have business acumen. Such partnerships have a much better chance at success. If an executive is a good strategic thinker, but not a great implementer, his or right-hand assistant better be. The next type of thinking that Green insists is needed to foster strategy development is conceptual thinking. She writes:

“Conceptual thinking consists of the ability to find connections or patterns between abstract ideas and then piece them together to form a complete picture.”

Conceptual thinking is closely tied to Green’s next type of thinking: innovative thinking. Innovative thinkers often see how existing things can be cobbled together in new ways to create something new. The ability to see things that others can’t is a trait to be treasured. Concerning innovative thinking, Green writes:

“Innovative thinking involves generating new ideas or new ways of approaching things to create possibilities and opportunities.”

As noted above, I would call this creative thinking rather than innovative thinking. In my mind, innovative thinking is a combination of creative, conceptual, and implementation thinking. Green’s point is nevertheless well made. You need people with creative minds involved in strategic thinking. Green believes the final type of thinking that should be included in strategic planning is intuitive thinking. She writes:

“Intuitive thinking is the ability to take what you may sense or perceive to be true and, without knowledge or evidence, appropriately factor it in to the final decision.”

Of all of the types of thinking that Green discusses, intuitive thinking is probably the one that can’t be taught or strengthened. Some people simply have better instincts than others. Nevertheless, Green insists that the “softer” thinking skills are “becoming increasingly important, especially in industries where frenetic change represents the rule rather than the exception.” She continues:

“Business leaders still need to gather and analyze data, make decisions, and implement them well. But now they have to take in vast amounts of data from a more diverse array of sources. They have to make decisions much more quickly. And they have to do it knowing that everything could change overnight. In such an environment, the ability to ponder possibilities, see patterns and connections that others don’t see, and look at the same data in new and different ways represents a formidable competitive advantage.”

Green could easily have been writing an article about big data and included the previous paragraph in it. Utilizing a Sense, Think/Learn, Act™ platform, like the one that Enterra Solutions has developed, executives have the benefit of an artificial intelligence platform helping them identify patterns, making connections, and seeing possibilities that enhance their natural abilities. Green admits that “some leaders seem to be born with these intuitive types of thinking skills,” and further admits that “most of us are not so naturally gifted.” Nevertheless she offers “some suggestions for developing these essential leadership skills.” She writes:


  • “Take time to look around. Browse business websites and read related publications to learn how other organizations have implemented various strategies in order to increase their competitive advantage.
  • “Be willing to change directions and/or pursue new goals when strategic opportunities arise. Think about what is keeping you on the same path and force yourself to ponder whether or not you should shift plans. Consider worst-case scenarios.
  • “When problems arise, don’t settle for a quick fix. Instead, carefully look at the problem and take the time to analyze all possible solutions. Create a checklist for yourself to trigger thoughts on long-term consequences and possibilities.
  • “Help others in the organization feel that they are part of the overall mission and strategies by discussing it with them frequently and involving them as much as possible.
  • “Pause and view your situation from another perspective – that of an employee, customer, supplier, etc.
  • “Research and analyze your company’s major competitors. Create a detailed profile of each one and share it with your team. Constantly look for first-hand data rather than relying on anecdotal information.
  • “Engage in ‘what-if’ thinking. For example, ‘If we do this, how will our competitors respond? What will our customers think? What impact will this have on our suppliers and distributors? What if there is something we have not considered?’
  • “Expand your data sources to include areas totally outside your business or industry. Analyze other industries to see what they’re doing well and how that could be adapted to your business.”


Although Green is writing about how to become a better strategic thinker, creativity gurus would offer nearly the same advice for someone who wants to become a more creative thinker. That goes for her next bit of advice as well:

“Get in the habit of stimulating your mind by not thinking about your business. From time to time, go outside your office and take a walk. Turn off your processing and just soak in the sights, sounds, and scents of the environment. Let your mind wander, and allow yourself the luxury of daydreaming. You’ll be amazed at what you can come up with simply by shifting out of the critical/implementation thinking modes from time to time.”

Green concludes, “The human brain is a powerful leadership tool. It works even better when you use all five thinking types!” The thing to remember is that it is impossible for a single individual to use different types of thinking at the same time. Most individuals have to use these techniques sequentially. The same is not true when you are in a group. By assembling a group that contains people skilled at various types of thinking, all of the techniques can be brought to bear simultaneously. This greatly speeds up the strategic planning process.

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