Can strategic thinking be taught?

“Nine-tenths of tactics are certain and taught in the books; but, the irrational tenth is like the kingfisher flashing across the pool. This is the test of generals. Success can only be ensured by instinct sharpened by thought. At the crisis, it is as natural as a reflex.” (T. E. Lawrence, The Science of Guerrilla Warfare)

In working with many different businesses over the years there are a couple of standout reasons as to why true differentiating strategy remains “unfit” for some retailers and other businesses just deliver robust “smart” strategy consistently. In fact, we see that over 40% of strategy actually never gets delivered to its intent.

Why might this be the case?

The makeup of the senior team is weighed too heavily with tactical “doers” and this begs the question: Is it strategy or strategic leadership that drives successful project implementation for a retailer? Does every senior team member possess the necessary attributes to contribute to the strategic endeavour?

I was intrigued, when asked by a CEO client recently as to whether strategic leadership can be taught or if it is more innate.

This segment from a fascinating article I recently read from the US military academy contributes to this debate by asking:

How do executive-level leaders regard decision-making and thinking at the strategic level?

At this level, there is a great premium on anticipation. One of the first requirements is to be a good anticipator. Number two is being able to anticipate sharply, to be able to shape issues, rather than having issues shaping me.

When anticipating, to have an intuitive judgment that says, “These things are important.” The anticipation and shaping (of) issues are what this job is all about (Stewart, 1993).

Officers who succeed at the three- and four-star levels have the individual capacity to cope with complexity, amorphousness, and uncertainty. You do not have to have everything laid out for you. You have the resiliency and ingenuity to adapt to new and different circumstances (Franks, 1994).

The most important phase in the exercise of strategic leadership is the front-end work. The in-depth, serious thinking by a leader and his or her team results in the creation of an intellectual framework for the future. Imaging the future first takes place in the mind of the leader and then must be communicated throughout the organization. Intellectual change guides the physical changes that manifest transformation. Without the tough up-front work of intellectual change, physical change will be unfocused, random, and unlikely to succeed (Sullivan & Harper, 1996).

So what separates the strategic thinker from the tactical implementer? Or as this paper demonstrated, how are the upper-level thinking skills of evaluation, synthesis and analysis differentiated from the skills of application, understanding and knowledge.

A truly “fit” senior team is capable of blending these attributes and skills to build and deliver the right operating strategy and its tactical implementation. Building this team is the difference between strategy and strategic leadership.

Taking a perspective of the team on the field allows us to build and deliver the “fittest” operating strategy in town.

Happy ‘fit’ retailing.

Brian Walker is the managing director of Australasia’s leading retail consultancy, Retail Doctor Group.




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