Blog: Learning Strategy

Strategic Thinking as “Seeing”

14 September 2018

Maybe we think too much and see too little. What, then, does strategic seeing mean?

Let’s begin with what strategic thinking is not. It’s not following an industry recipe or copying a competitor’s strategy or continuing to do what was always done—at least not unless these have been carefully considered. In other words, strategic thinking is not mindlessness, not imitation, not thoughtless persistence. Nor is it purely cerebral: separating self from the subject of strategy and working it out cleverly in a meeting.

Most people would agree that strategic thinking means seeing ahead.

But we can’t see ahead unless we see behind, because any good vision of the future has to be rooted in an understanding of the past. To paraphrase Kierkegaard, life may be lived forward, but it is understood backward.

Maybe we think too much and see too little. What, then, does strategic seeing mean?

Let’s begin with what strategic thinking is not. It’s not following an industry recipe or copying a competitor’s strategy or continuing to do what was always done—at least not unless these have been carefully considered. In other words, strategic thinking is not mindlessness, not imitation, not thoughtless persistence. Nor is it purely cerebral: separating self from the subject of strategy and working it out cleverly in a meeting.

Most people would agree that strategic thinking means seeing ahead.

But we can’t see ahead unless we see behind, because any good vision of the future has to be rooted in an understanding of the past. To paraphrase Kierkegaard, life may be lived forward, but it is understood backward.

Of course, even the best knowledge of the past may not help to see the future. We need to foresee discontinuities rather than extrapolating trends. And for this, there are no techniques, not much more than informed, creative intuition.

Some people think that strategic thinking is about “distinguish the forest from the trees”. The only way to do this is to hover above those trees. To them, therefore, strategic thinking is seeing above.

But can anyone get the “big picture” just by seeing above. The forest looks like a carpet from a helicopter, yet anyone who has taken a walk in a forest knows that it doesn’t look like that on the ground. Strategists can’t understand much about forests if they stay in helicopters, nor much about organizations if they stay in head offices.

I prefer the metaphor of finding the diamond in the rough: see the gem of an idea that changes an organization. And that does not come from the big picture at all, but from a lot of hard and messy digging. Indeed, there is no big picture (let alone precious gem) readily available to strategists. It must be constructed from the details that they dig up—or the brushstrokes painted one-by-one. Thus, strategic thinking is also inductive thinking: seeing above must be inferred from seeing below.

Yet you can see ahead by seeing behind and see above by seeing below and still not be a strategic thinker. That takes creativity, even ordinary creativity. Strategic thinkers see differently from other people; they pick out the precious gems that others miss, paint their own pictures, challenge conventional wisdom—and thereby differentiate their organizations. Such thinking has been referred to as lateral thinking, and so we can call it seeing beside.

There are many creative ideas in this world, far more than we can handle—just visit any art gallery. And so, to think strategically requires more than just seeing beside. Those creative ideas have to be placed into context, to be seen to work in a world that is to unfold. Strategic thinkers, in other words, also see beyond.

Seeing beyond is different from seeing ahead. The latter foresees an expected future by constructing a framework out of the past. The former constructs the future—it invents a world that would not otherwise exist.

But strategic thinking is not finished yet, because there remains one last necessary ingredient. What is the use of doing all this seeing—ahead and behind, above and below, beside and beyond—if nothing gets done? In other words, to deserve the label strategic, thinkers and organizations must also see it through.

Put this all together and you get the following: strategic thinking as seeing.

©Henry Mintzberg 2018. An early vision of this appeared in J. Nasi, ed., Arenas of Strategic Thinking, Foundation for Economic Education, Helsinki Finland, 1991.

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Need a strategy? Let them grow like weeds in the garden

29 June 2018

Hothouse Dick sitting among the weeds, photo by HM


Searching for a strategy? Here’s how to get one, according to just about every book and article on the subject. I have stylized this a wee bit, in what I call the “Hothouse Model of Strategy Formulation.”


The Hothouse Model of Strategy Formulation

1. There is one prime strategist, and that person is the chief executive officer—the planter of all strategies. Other managers may fertilize, while consultants can offer advice (sometimes even the strategy itself—but don’t tell anybody).

2. The planners analyze the appropriate data so that the CEO can formulate the strategy through a carefully controlled process of conscious thought, much as tomatoes are cultivated in a hothouse.

Hothouse Dick sitting among the weeds, photo by HM


Searching for a strategy? Here’s how to get one, according to just about every book and article on the subject. I have stylized this a wee bit, in what I call the “Hothouse Model of Strategy Formulation.”


The Hothouse Model of Strategy Formulation

1. There is one prime strategist, and that person is the chief executive officer—the planter of all strategies. Other managers may fertilize, while consultants can offer advice (sometimes even the strategy itself—but don’t tell anybody).

2. The planners analyze the appropriate data so that the CEO can formulate the strategy through a carefully controlled process of conscious thought, much as tomatoes are cultivated in a hothouse.

3. The strategy comes out of this process immaculately conceived, then to be made formally explicit, much as ripe tomatoes are picked and sent to market.

4. This explicit strategy is then implemented, which includes developing necessary budgets as well as designing the appropriate structure. (If the strategy fails, ''Implementation'' must be blamed, namely those dumbbells who were not smart enough to implement the CEO’s brilliant strategy. But if these dumbbells are smart, they will ask: “Why, if you are so smart, didn’t you formulate a strategy that we dumbbells were capable of implementing?” You see, every failure of implementation is also a failure of formulation.) 

5. Hence, to manage this process is to plant the strategy carefully and watch over it as it grows on schedule, so that the market can beat a path to the produce.1


Wait, don’t go off and start formulating your strategy quite yet. Read the next model first.

A grassroots model of strategy formation

1. Strategies grow initially like weeds in a garden; they don’t need to be cultivated like tomatoes in a hothouse. They can form, rather than having to be formulated, as decisions and actions taken one-by-one amalgamate into a consistent pattern. In other words, strategies can emerge, gradually, through a process of learning. The hothouse, if needed, can come later.  

2. These strategies can take root in all kinds of strange places, wherever people have the capacity to learn and the resources to support that capacity. Anybody in touch with an opportunity can come up with an idea that can evolve into a strategy. An engineer meets a customer and imagines a new product. No discussion, no planning: she just builds it. The seeds of a possible new strategy are planted. The point is that organizations cannot always plan where a strategy will begin, let alone plan the strategy itself. Accordingly, productive strategists build gardens in fertile ground, where all kinds of ideas can take root and the best of them can grow.

3. Individual ideas become organizational strategies when they pervade the organization. Other engineers see what she has done and follow suit. Then the salespeople get the idea. Next thing you know, the whole organization has a new strategy—a new pattern in its activities—which might even come as a surprise in the C suite. After all, weeds can proliferate and encompass a whole garden; then the conventional plants can look out of place. But what’s a weed but a plant that wasn’t expected. With a change of perspective, the emerging strategy can become what’s valued, much as Europeans enjoy salads of the leaves of dandelions, America’s most notorious weed.

4. This process of proliferation can sometimes be consciously managed. Once an emerging strategy is recognized as valuable, its proliferation can be managed the way plants are selectively propagated. This may be the time to build that hothouse: turn that emergent strategy into a deliberate strategy going forward.

5. There is a time to sow strategies and a time to reap them. Blurring the distinction between sowing and reaping can damage a garden—and an organization too. Managers have to appreciate when to exploit an established crop of strategies, and when to encourage new strains to replace them.

6. Hence, to manage this process is not to plan strategies, but to recognize their emergence and intervene when appropriate. A truly destructive weed, once noticed, is best uprooted immediately. But one that seems capable of bearing fruit is worth watching, in fact sometimes worth pretending not to notice, until it bears fruit or else withers. Then hothouses can be built around those that offer the hanging fruit, low or high.

OK, now you are all set for strategy, by forgetting the word, getting involved in the details, and doing a lot more learning than planning.

© Henry Mintzberg 2018. First posted, with some different text, on 23 October 2016. This version will appear in my forthcoming book Bedtime Stories for Managers. For considerably more on this, see the books Strategy Safari and Tracking Strategies.

1Aside from the work of Michael Porter, see Dick Rumelt’s book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy. Neither author would, of course, quite subscribe to this characterization of their work, but both offer the best of the hothouse approach.

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Need a strategy? Let it grow like a weed in the garden

23 October 2016

Hothouse Dick sitting among the weeds, photo by HM

Searching for a strategy? Here’s how to get one, according to just about every book and article on the subject. I have stylized this a bit, in what I call the Hothouse Model of Strategy Formulation.

1.    There is one prime strategist, and that person is the chief executive officer. Other managers may participate, and planners provide support, while consultants offer advice (sometimes they even offer the strategy itself—but don’t tell anybody).

2.    The chief analyzes the appropriate data and then formulates the strategy through a controlled process of conscious thought, much as tomatoes are cultivated in a hothouse.

3.    The strategy comes out of this process immaculately conceived, then to be made formally explicit, much as ripe tomatoes are picked and sent to market.

Hothouse Dick sitting among the weeds, photo by HM

Searching for a strategy? Here’s how to get one, according to just about every book and article on the subject. I have stylized this a bit, in what I call the Hothouse Model of Strategy Formulation.

1.    There is one prime strategist, and that person is the chief executive officer. Other managers may participate, and planners provide support, while consultants offer advice (sometimes they even offer the strategy itself—but don’t tell anybody).

2.    The chief analyzes the appropriate data and then formulates the strategy through a controlled process of conscious thought, much as tomatoes are cultivated in a hothouse.

3.    The strategy comes out of this process immaculately conceived, then to be made formally explicit, much as ripe tomatoes are picked and sent to market.

4.  This explicit strategy is then systematically implemented, which includes the development of necessary budgets as well as the design of appropriate structure. (If the strategy fails, blame “implementation”, namely those dumbbells who were not smart enough to implement your brilliant strategy. But be careful, because if the dumbbells are smart, they will the ask “Why, if you are so smart, did you not formulate a strategy that we dumbbells were capable of implementing?” You see, every failure of implementation is one of formulation.)

5.    Hence to manage this process is to plant your strategy carefully and watch over it as it grows on schedule, so that the market can beat a path to your products and services.1

 

Wait, don’t go off and start your strategy quite yet. First read what I call a grassroots model of strategy formation.

1.    Strategies grow initially like weeds in a garden; they are not cultivated like tomatoes in a hothouse. In other words, the process of creating strategies can be over-managed. Sometimes it is more important to let ideas emerge than to force a premature consistency on the organization. Allow those strategies to form, as patterns, not having to be formulated, as plans. The hothouse, if needed, can come later.

2.    These strategies can take root in all kinds of strange places, virtually wherever people have the capacity to learn and the resources to support that capacity. Sometimes an individual in touch with an opportunity can create his or her own idea that evolves into a strategy. An engineer meets a customer and gets an idea for a new product. No discussion, no planning: she just builds it and sells it. The point is that organizations cannot always plan where their strategies will emerge, let alone plan the strategies themselves.

3.    Ideas become strategies when they pervade  the organization. Other engineers see what she has done and follow suit. Then the salespeople get the idea. Next thing you know, the organization has a new strategy—a new pattern in its activities—which might even come as a surprise to the central management. After all, weeds can proliferate and encompass a whole garden; then the conventional plants look out of place. Likewise, newly emerging strategies can sometimes displace existing deliberate ones. But, of course, what’s a weed but a plant that wasn’t expected? With a change of perspective, the emerging strategy can become what’s valued, much as Europeans enjoy salads of the leaves of dandelions, America’s most notorious weed.

4.    The processes of proliferation may or may not be consciously managed. As noted above, the pattern can just spread by collective action, much as plants proliferate themselves. Of course, once strategies are recognized as valuable, the processes by which they proliferate can be managed, just as plants can be selectively propagated. Then it may be time to build that hothouse—make that emergent strategy deliberate going forward.

5.    There is a time to sow strategies and a time to reap them. The blurring of the separation between these two can have the same effect on an organization that the blurring of the separation between sowing and reaping can have on a garden. Managers have to appreciate when to exploit an established crop of strategies and when to encourage new strains to replace them.

6.    Hence to manage this process is not to preconceive strategies but to recognize their emergence and intervene when appropriate. A destructive weed, once noticed, is best uprooted immediately. But one that seems capable of bearing fruit is worth watching, indeed sometimes worth building a hothouse around. Managing in this context means ensuring a flexible structure that encourages the generation of a wide variety of ideas and establishing a climate within which such ideas can grow, then to notice what does in fact come up, and support the best of it. But you must not be too quick to cut off the unexpected: sometimes it is better to pretend not to notice a newly emerging strategy until it bears some fruit, or else withers.

 

OK, now you are all set to go out and create strategies: by forgetting the word, getting involved in the details, and doing a lot more learning than planning.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. This TWOG is adopted from pages 214-216 of my book Mintzberg on Management, which is the best collection of my earlier writings.

1Aside from the work of Michael Porter, see Dick Rumelt’s book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy. Neither author would, of course, quite subscribe to this characterization of their work, but both offer the best of this approach.

Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing hereTo help disseminate these blogs, we also have a Facebook page and a LinkedIn page.