Strategic Thinking is also called Systems Thinking, critical thinking, solutions thinking, future and forward thinking, long-term thinking, and high level thinking. It is not analytic thinking, which is tactical, mechanistic, reductionist, and either/or thinking, one-best-method.
- Systems Thinking focuses on relationships, multiple outcomes, holism and boundaries, the environment, the larger system, and feedback.
- Strategic Thinking is about clarity and simplicity, meaning and purpose, focus and direction, relationships and feedback, and desired outcomes.
They are the Same Thought Process
Despite being referred to differently, depending on the context, Systems Thinking and Strategic Thinking are fundamentally the same concept, only applied in different circumstances. It is a heuristics-based mindset, exactly what’s needed more of in today’s business environment.
Senge’s 11 Laws of Systems
In The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Senge suggests 11 laws of systems that support that essential understanding:
- Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions. Leaders are happy to solve problems, but don’t always think about intended and unintended consequences. Too often, our solutions strike back to create new problems.
- The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back. Humans have a stubborn tendency to bully our way through tough situations when things are not working out as we would hope. We charge ahead without taking time to think through solutions to find better alternatives. Sometimes we solve problems; more often, especially in the current environment, we find ourselves up to our ears in more problems.
- Behavior grows better before it grows worse. Short-term solutions give temporary improvement at best but never eliminate fundamental issues and problems. These underlying problems will make the situation worse in the long run.
- The easy way out leads back in. Leaders often have a few quick fixes in their “quiver” of solutions that have brought quick and easy success in the past. Too often, the easy way out is retrofitting these fixes to any situation without regard to the unique contexts, people and timing.
- The cure can be worse than the disease. Often, the easy and familiar solution is not only ineffective but addictive and dangerous. It might even induce dependency.
- Faster is slower. At the first taste of success, it is tempting to advance at full speed without caution. Remember that the optimal rate of growth or change is far slower than the fastest growth or change that is possible.
- Cause and effect are not always closely related in time and space. We are good at finding causes, even if they are just symptoms unrelated to root causes.
- Small changes can produce big results — but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious. The most grand and splashy solutions — like changing company policy, vision, branding or tagline — seldom work for transforming change. Small, ordinary but consistent and repetitive changes can make a huge difference.
- You can have your cake and eat it too — but not all at once. Rigid “either-or” choices are not uncommon. Remember that this is not a dilemma if we change our perspective or the “rules” of the system.
- Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants. As a leader, failing to see the systems as a whole is at your peril. This flaw in perception and vision often leads to sub-optimal decisions, repeated tasks, lost time and energy, and maybe even losing followers.
- There is no blame. People and organizations like to blame, point fingers and raise suspicions about events, situations, problems, errors and mistakes. Sometimes we even believe the blame we throw around. Ourselves, the cause of events, situations, problems, errors and mistakes are all part of the system.
Understanding Systems Thinking is Essential
In fact, it is the foundation and catalyst of leading change.
W. Edwards Deming first pointed out the need to understand the system in post-World War II America. Deming stressed that learning must be emergent, designing out the system aspects that are wasteful, sub-optimizing, and unnecessarily redundant.
To improve performance, the system has to change because the system drives 95 percent of any organization’s performance. He also said that any improvement that does not involve human system change methods was doomed to failure in the short-, mid- and long-term; you cannot implement a new system in an old environment and anticipate success.
The Key to Achieving the Necessary Human Mindset Change Lies in Curiosity:
- Ask questions.
- Learn by doing.
- Think about what could be.
Deming’s messages fell on deaf ears in the U.S. post World War 2 boom. Thinking did not change, and thinking must change for the system to change.