Strategic Thinking

What is strategic thinking? This question often crosses my mind and those of my students, especially when I am teaching the ITIL Lifecycle classes. Just as often as the question arises, a variety of answers are put forth as well.

One definition of strategic thinking holds that “the role of strategic thinking is ‘to seek innovation and imagine new and very different futures that may lead the company to redefine its core strategies and even its industry’ ". This implies that the definition and use of strategic thinking are related but different from strategic planning—putting into action or executing the ideas developed using strategic thinking. Strategic thinking is just that—postulating or thinking about what the future holds and what the future looks like. Strategic planning is action based. A good organization recognizes they need both.

As a Professor who attempts to provide learners with theory-driven practical data, information, knowledge and wisdom, I particularly like the difference in definition between strategic thinking and strategic planning. But how do you learn to use the two approaches differently yet in a related manner? I think one key is in the deliverables.

The key deliverables of strategic thinking should be a vision, a mission statement and a values statement. In this context a vision is a mental picture of what you would like the future to be for yourself, your company and your industry. A mission is a basic statement on how you would like to go about achieving that picture of the future. The mission then becomes a key input to strategic planning, which develops action steps from the mission. The values statement identifies the core beliefs and convictions you will stand by as you move forward towards your vision.

The key deliverables of strategic planning are your objectives, goals, strategies, plans, and critical success factors that serve as a roadmap and toolkit for achieving your vision. Since the vision is a picture of a broad horizon, strategic planning helps you lay out the details, milestones, vehicles, elements and conditions required to achieve success.

Once you have used strategic thinking and strategic planning to layout your future, you will have completed top-down design of what success looks like for your customers and your organization. You will need to follow up the top-down design by building your capabilities from the bottom up as a validation of design. You will need to identify the processes, roles, key performance indicators, measures, metrics and tool sets that will enable you to reach your vision.

Remember that you need to do the top-down design before you do the bottom-up build. Otherwise you risk putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Taking too operational a perspective on how to serve your customers can take you away from the benefits of strategic thinking and planning and place you into a “just do it” mentality that can often lead you in directions you did not intend.

You will continue to go in this strategic thinking/planning and capabilities cycle using Continual Improvement as a guide towards quality. Each cycle will help you refine your vision and improve your roadmap and toolkit until you are moving along the journey to success as a well-oiled machine.

So do not hesitate: start thinking and planning strategically today!

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