Friday, June 28, 2013

How to Develop the Mind of a Strategist

Strategy is a mindset, a way of thinking about decision making, work issues, even a wide variety of life-related issues. Michel Robert in his book, “Strategy Pure and Simple: How Winning CEOs Outthink Their Competition” defines strategic thinking as, “. . . a fresh approach to the subject of strategy. It identifies the key factors that dictate the direction of an organization and is a process that the organization’s management uses to set direction and articulate their vision.” In a later book he said, “. . . the companies that will prosper and outpace their competitors during the next two decades will be those that will be able to outthink their competitors strategically . . . the winning CEO in the future will be the one who can craft a singular strategy that gives the company a distinctive advantage.”

Becoming a strategist means committing to a mental approach that outthinks the competition, or the opposition, or the media and produces a distinctive or unique approach, series of steps, solution options, or direction choices.

It’s easy to list these outcomes but much tougher to consistently achieve them. Keep in mind that we’re talking about a management process, not the creative process. Creativity and strategy are different. I’ll address the differences in a future blog. Today let’s learn how to develop the mind of a strategist by helping you assess your strategic tendencies.


How strategic are you? What’s your strategic mindset? Here’s an exercise you can do privately to determine just how strategic you really are. Assess yourself against these strategic attributes:
  • Inconsistency: The strategist is intentionally inconsistent; in fact with a true strategist, inconsistency is a virtue. Strategists relentlessly question all assumptions. The goal is always a different approach and identifying new options.
Are you predictable? Do you approach problems in the very same way, is what you recommend and think about virtually the same every time?
  • Conclusive Approaches: The strategist seeks the force and impact of a conclusive result even though that result may only be One of a series of increments and often not terribly exciting or very visible.
Is your approach always to try to find the “big idea” or, if that’s impossible, to “do things,” or to create activity and action, or to simply generate visibility?
  • Substantive Intensity: A strategist applies focus and intensity to the most critical parts of a problem or opportunity through fact finding, truth seeking, and reality testing.
Do you focus primarily on the communication aspects of an issue? Can you see problems and issues and their priorities from the boss’ perspective? Do you make operating recommendations, or do you merely suggest language changes or media contact that produces mindless visibility?
  • Laggership, Entropy: A strategist understands the priority and sequence of doing something and also of doing nothing. There are always a variety of options for action, including non-action.
Are you a person with a bias for action, attack, stuff, things, and the irrepressible urge to tell people?
  • Pragmatism: A strategist attempts to clarify, refine, and carefully target; to deal in facts, truth, and reality-based information; and, wherever possible, to forecast results that can actually or reasonably be achieved as well as the unintended consequences of various action options. A strategist usually forecasts underwhelming results.
Is your focus on the words more than analysis of problems and opportunities? Can you, do you accurately forecast the intended and unintended results of your recommendations?


The model I like most for describing the strategic thinking process was developed by Kenichi Ohmae as presented in his book, “The Mind of the Strategist: Business Planning for Competitive Advantage.” The epiphany, for me, came on page 14 of this book through an illustration called, “The Mind of a Strategist,” (reproduced here with permission from The McGraw-Hill Companies).

The powerful insight of Mr. Ohmae’s approach is his analysis of the three management thinking methodologies:
  • Mechanical systems, process thinking (I call it “linear thinking”);
  • Intuition; and
  • Strategic thinking.
Let me talk about each of them as I’ve come to understand them and teach them to others.

Linear Thinking

The linear thinker is the manager, boss, or specialist; the physician, the economist, the engineer, the scientist, or your typical CEO.

This thinking is typified by a more chronological, more linear approach. Linear thinkers are the people who not only plan with the end in mind, but actually use a structured outline format, chronology, order of manufacture, etc. It’s the doctor, lawyer, engineer, MBA, operations manager, boss.

They are the people that public relations people or any creative or intuitive person loves to hate because linear thinkers seem so organized, so “logical,” so … well, linear. Very few public relations people can be linear thinkers for long. This is the reason why few public relations professionals ever become CEOs of businesses other than public relations agencies. And, my guess is that most PR agency CEOs would rather be in the field with clients anyway.

With the linear thinker, the end to be achieved is identified early (maybe years earlier), and a plan is constructed backwards to include every detail, up to and through today.

Intuitive Thinkers

Public relations professionals and other creative people such as artists, painters, news reporters, and writers are intuitive thinkers. Intuitive people don’t indulge in much truly analytical thought. The goal is to find the great idea and/or the most interesting or creative solution – the big idea.

The “Jell-O Phenomenon” is the best way to describe how the intuitive thinker works. You’ve all made Jell-O or at least know what it is. You boil the water, stir in the powder until it’s dissolved, put the bowl in the refrigerator, and at some point in time – we’re not exactly sure when (there may be a deal between God and General Foods) – Jell-O happens. It’s an amazing mystery.

While the linear thinker is driven by a process, a timeline, a chronology, and a structured outline with basically all of its elements known, the intuitive thinker is simply driven by a deadline. There is little long-range thinking about how things will turn out until the very last minute just before the deadline (when the Jell-O Phenomenon happens). It’s unexplainable. It’s a mystery.

With the intuitive thinker, no deadline, no progress.

It’s this unexplainability, the lack of evidence, which upsets the linear thinker (read boss) and frustrates the intuitive thinker (read PR person/ reporter) because, “they (linear thinkers) just don’t get it.”

Strategic Thinkers

The strategic thinker, as you can tell by Mr. Ohmae’s diagram, takes an entirely different approach – on purpose. Inconsistency is one of the key attributes of strategic thinking. It’s consciously, relentlessly, purposely following different approaches. The strategist is intentionally going for a result that no one expects or may recognize.

Liberally interpreting Ohmae, strategic thinking is a process involving four segments:
  • Problem dissection;
  • Analysis and weighing of constituents:
  • Scenario development based on different constituent configurations or options; and
  • Creative re-integration.
When you examine Ohmae’s diagram, you notice just how different the three thinking styles are:
  • The linear thinker moves symmetrical concepts around, more to reconfigure than to reinvent.
  • The intuitive thinker seeks the critical fact, idea, notion, or insight among a host of other potential ideas and concepts.
  • The strategic thinker is, literally, deconstructing the problem in ways that are unique.
  • The pattern of assumptions made by the intuitive and linear thinkers is totally challengeable in the strategist’s mind.
As you compare the solutions, you see a graphic depiction of the difference in the product these thinking styles produce.

The linear thinker’s result is symmetrical, it adds up, has balance, and to a certain degree resembles the original problem.

The intuitive solution is the classic “silver bullet.”

The strategist’s solution often looks very little like the original problem. And, in fact, while utilizing elements of the original problem, a distinct and unique solution is the result. A strategist’s goal is to transform the problem prototype into a command opportunity, a command strategy, a series of actions leading to a powerful result or series of results.

Clearly, good managers and decision-makers, even staff people, are situational thinkers. They can be intuitive. They can be strategic. But, for an organization to execute a strategy there must be a process by which strategy is developed and then translated into language and action plans that everyone can understand, support and execute.

In the next edition of Lukaszewski on Strategy, I’ll talk specifically about how managers make strategic decisions and how intuitive thinkers and strategists can structure advice and counsel in ways that make both more understandable, acceptable, and usable for management; I call it the 3-minute drill.

(For more information on this subject, contact the author by email at or explore his website at You may also want to refer to Chapters 1, 3, 7 and 9 of his book, Why Should the Boss Listen to You, The Seven Disciplines of the Trusted Strategic Advisor, Jossey-Bass, 2008.)

James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA is the author of Lukaszewski on Crisis Communication, What Your CEO Needs to Know About Reputation Risk and Crisis Management, available now at

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