Monday, November 8, 2010

Can "Strategic Thinking" Be Taught?

I read a great blog post last week by the HR Bartender that has really made me think. That is what great blogs, do...make you think. Sharlyn Lauby discussed the fact that strategic thinking and creating a strategy are 2 different but interrelated competencies.

As a teacher/facilitator/participant in both of these subjects, I began to think, where do these skills sets come from?

Are you born strategic or can you learn to be strategic? (focusing on the HR profession)

Before I attempt to answer that question let's think about the human brain for a moment. My business partner, Barbara Hughes is a licensed facilitator of the HBDI instrument which assesses our thinking styles or preferences. I will attempt to use some of the HBDI methodology to understand and answer the question above.

We all know the discussion around right brained people being the "creative" types and left brained people being the "number crunching" types.

The HBDI model divides the brain into 4 quadrants (see picture above) with the right side being your creative, people oriented side and the left being your planning, organizational analytical side.

I would like to compare strategic thinking and strategic planning as those are the two skills sets I hear about most often in my work.

So, strategic thinking is all about the right side of the brain which includes, thinking about the future, innovation, new ideas, etc.

Strategic planning to me, takes on some of the left side as you are planning, setting goals, and formulating action plans. Also, a big part of strategic planning is obviously about the people which is part of the right side of the brain.

Fast forward to today and HR's dilemma to become strategic...(whatever that means to the profession). Given the above information on our brains and how we are wired, it would seem that we as HR professionals should be awesome at the planning part. Where we may need some help is in the "strategic thinking" area as typical HR professionals do not have a preference for that type of exercise.

Can we learn, you betcha! But not with any typical school curriculum. Sure, we can get the basics and read theory. Thinking strategically requires practice, practice, and more practice.

The first step is, assessing your preferences and becoming aware of what you naturally prefer to do and those areas that you don't show a strong preference.

Back to my question, Are you born strategic or can you learn to be strategic? What do you think, let's get this discussion started....


Rick Buchman, Co-author, Balanced Scorecard Strategy for Dummies said...

Hi all,
Great question. I believe it is not training, but what some refer to as 'programming' that determines one manager's ability to think strategically over another. The total, cumulative effects of training, coupled with the work environment and what the manager is exposed to, pertinent leader behaviors, and one's own ethics and belief systems form the foundation for the level of strategic thinking and capability. For example, A rigid, highly supervised environment will program a rigid, one step at a time, frequent checks with the boss type of manager... in other words, not all that strategic. A flexible, learning and enabling environment where leadership involves managers in strategic planning and long-term strategy will program a strategically oriented type of manager. And there are all of the shades of grey in-between. The whole purpose of this question is to see how we can get more strategic, in any case. The answer is to gauge the level of programming in place, consider the strategic capability desired, and move to develop those elements that can contribute to a more strategic thinking work environment. But, this is not easy, and may require fundamental shifts in management systems, leadership styles, and current policies and practices. Best of luck in your endeavors!!

Breanne Potter said...

Practice, Practice, Practice- that's exactly right! While some people naturally have strategic or critical thinking skills, everyone can improve their skill level with coaching, attention, and practice. Great post!

Barbara A Hughes said...

Get post, Cathy. You know I had to weigh in on the topic!

When I was studying for HBDI certification, I was privileged to study under Ned Herrmann and he was really clear about born versus made. His research indicated that about 30% of our preferences are "nature" and 70% "nurture". We are hard-wired to be Whole Brained so, to your point, understand what your preferences are and practice your least preferred thinking styles.
What helps also is what you and I have done for 14 years: put the left side with the right side and be a Whole Brain duo. This works extremely well; so advice also is find someone who isn't like you and collaborate.

Sharlyn Lauby said...

Nice post Cathy! And many thanks for the HR Bartender mention. I hadn't heard of the HBDI model...very interesting.

I agree with you that strategic thinking can be taught given the right learning environment. I'm a fan of teaching people theory and then giving them opportunities to put that theory to practice.

Look forward to hearing more on the topic!

Unknown said...

@breanna, thanks for reading and the kind words!

@barbara thanks for your expertise in this area, you so right, if it is not your preference, find someone that has that as a preference!!

@sharlyn, thanks for making me think and starting this important discussion!

Michael D. Haberman, SPHR said...

Great post. I am a firm believer that the skills can be taught. You may not become the most strategic of thinkers, there is some built in or innate ability that does factor in, but you certainly can become better at it.

I think companies can structure an ongoing set of exercises that progressively get harder to allow managers to stretch themselves in strategic thinking.

Unknown said...

Thanks Mike, I agree. It's all in the practice, apply, practice apply and repeat! Thanks for reading and commenting!