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Learning to Think Strategically

How executive courses in strategic and integrative thinking go beyond simple planning
Nov 20, 2012 — M. Filtz

If you're like many executives, you might find that in managing the day-to-day operations of your company or department, you sometimes lose sight of the big picture. Your long-term strategic plans might seem harder to achieve if you're continually focused on the small things.

Even the most successful managers “get entrenched in their recipes and routines of doing things,” says Patrick Reinmoeller. “And that locks them into specific ways of thinking about what they're doing.”
 
Reinmoeller directs the executive program “Breakthrough Strategic Thinking” at Cranfield School of Management in the UK. He says many of the program's participants are looking for new ways to break out of their old routines, because they know that the old routines can limit their potential.
 
“Usually they're high-performance in their silos,” Reinmoeller says, “but they realize that the next promotion will expose them to this empty space on top of the silo, where they suddenly have to interact with other people from other silos.”
 
“It's a real challenge for them.”
 
For these kinds of executives, a short course that focuses on strategic thinking can help in many different ways. These courses can provide concepts and frameworks that can be applied to anything from seizing new career opportunities to managing a project or growing a business.
 
Indeed, business schools offer a variety of strategic thinking courses, focusing on different applications. For example, Wharton Executive Education offers a week-long course in “Strategic Thinking and Management for Competitive Advantage;” York Schulich offers a program in “Critical Thinking and Strategic Problem Solving Skills for Leaders,” and the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business has a course in “Strategic Thinking and Action.”
 
Strategic thinking can be especially important because it can give executives the rare opportunity to step back and evaluate business operations between larger strategy discussions.
 
“What we see is that executives in companies might go off-site for two days, once a year, to update their strategic plan,” says Grant Sieff, who teaches “Strategic Thinking and Execution for Growth” at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business.
 
By their nature, strategic plans tend to be static, and can be disconnected from the real business world, where things change daily, or even hourly. 
 
“The nature of the operating environment is so volatile that there needs to be a thinking process with every operational transaction that links the executives back to that plan, and that keeps that plan alive and relevant,” says Sieff.
 
Cranfield's Patrick Reinmoeller agrees. He says that the goal of strategic thinking “is to continuously question whether your old way of winning works tomorrow.”
 
This continuous strategic thinking process can be beneficial to many executives, in a variety of functional roles.
 
“Strategic thinking occurs in all the various functions of any organizational challenge, so people who are in the marketing profession have to engage with strategic thinking, people who are in human resources have to engage in strategic thinking,” says John Oesch, who teaches a five-day course “Leading Strategic Change: An Integrative Thinking Approach” at the Rotman School of Management.
 
Integrative thinking is similar to strategic thinking, and can be used in developing solutions to complex, or “wicked” problems. Like strategic thinking, integrative thinking is a methodology that works best when applied continuously.
 
“Part of the integrative thinking approach is that you're constantly building feedback loops from which you can learn,” Oesch says.
 
To teach managers to be effective strategic thinkers, executive programs rely on a variety of learning methods. For example, in the University of Cape Town's “Strategic Thinking and Execution for Growth,” participants cover traditional case studies, but much of the four-day course is geared toward interactive, roundtable discussions. 
 
According to Grant Sieff, since participants come from a variety of different backgrounds, the discussion format helps participants see their own strategic issues from different perspectives.
 
“It allows us to explore the nature of the operating environment,” he says, “within which we all have to struggle and cope – to explore it from our different lenses.”
 
One of the main benefits of executive education programs in strategic thinking is that they allow executives to immediately apply new insights. For example, participants who attend Rotman's “Leading Strategic Change: An Integrative Thinking Approach” program are able to address their projects during the course. 
 
“We ask that people have a real, ongoing, live project,” John Oesch says, so that they're able to analyze it and apply new approaches.
 
Some executive programs are set up in ways that allow participants to directly implement these strategic thinking insights in the real business environment. For example, Cranfield's “Breakthrough Strategic Thinking” program is a modular course that's delivered in two two-day sessions. In between the two sessions is a period of between six weeks and two months where participants are able to apply new ideas.
 
“When they come back to the program, they'll present to each other what kind of concepts they applied, and which ideas have achieved some kind of success,” says Patrick Reinmoeller.
 
“And by doing so, they push their own project ahead.”
 
Photo: Mykl Roventine / Flickr

 

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