Strategic thinking is the art of outdoing an opponent, knowing that the opponent is trying to do the same to you. All of us must practice strategic thinking at work as well as at personal level. Business persons and organizations must use good competitive strategies to survive. Politicians have to devise campaign strategies to get elected, and legislative strategies to implement their visions.
Soccer coaches plan strategies for the players to execute on the field. Parents trying to elicit good behavior from their children must become amateur strategists (the children are the pros). For seventy years, superpowers’ nuclear strategies have governed the survival of the human race.
Good strategic thinking in such numerous diverse contexts remains an art. But its foundations consists of some simple basic principles – an emerging science of strategy. The science of strategic thinking is called game theory. This is a relatively young science – less than seventy years old. It has already provided many useful insights for practical strategists. But, like all sciences, it has become shrouded in jargon and mathematics. These are essential research tools, but they prevent all but the specialists from understanding the basic ideas.
Many books have already attempted to develop ideas or frameworks of strategic thinking for particular applications. Tom Schelling’s writings on nuclear strategies, particularly The Strategy of Conflict and Arms and Influence, are justly famous. In fact, Schelling pioneered a lot of game theory in the process of applying it to nuclear conflict. Michael Porter’s Competitive Strategy, drawing on lessons of game theory for business strategy, is equally famous.
Also, tracing to the Asian’s ancient history, one will come across Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Japan version of Book of Five Rings which focuses on the underlying thoughts & behaviors of strategic thinking. Other more special tactical principles such as Thirty-Six Stratagems of ancient Chinese are also commonly infused into the mix when conducting business practices in Asia.
What then is Strategic Behaviour under the context of Strategic Thinking. This answer does not deal with ethics or etiquette. Thus, it is important that a younger person needs “adult supervision” before engaging in strategic thinking as the boundary is limitless if it is not moderated by proper value systems. Nor do I claim to compete with the philosophers, preachers, or any religious leaders. The theme, although less lofty, affects the lives of all of us just as much as do morality and manners. This writing is about behavior underlying strategic thinking. All of us are strategists, whether we like it or not. It is better to be a good strategist than a poor one, and it is important one spend time to improve one’s skills at discovering and using effective strategies.
Though I did teach ‘strategy sessions’ in the past and since evolving into impart lesser known ‘divinatory strategy’ for fellow practitioners, I am mindful of its ramifications on my participant-learners. Work, even social life, is a constant stream of strategic decisions. What career to pursue, how to manage a business, whom to know, how to bring up our children, what projects to take on, whether to run for a particular office, are just some examples of such fateful choices. The common element in these situations is that one does not act in a vacuum. Instead, one is surrounded by active decision-makers whose choices interact with yours. This interaction has an important effect on one’s thinking and actions.
To illustrate the point, think of the difference between the decisions of a lumberjack and those of a general. When the lumberjack decides how to chop wood, he does not expect the wood to fight back; his environment is neutral. But when the general tries to cut down the enemy’s army, he must anticipate and overcome resistance to his plans. Like the general, you must recognize that one’s business rivals, prospective spouse, and even one’s child are intelligent and purposive people. Their aims often conflict with ours, but they include some potential allies. One’s own choice must allow for the conflict, and utilize the cooperation. Such interactive decisions are called strategic, and the plan of action appropriate to them is called a strategy. Thus, it is a good cultivation for one to be able to think strategically, and then to translate these thoughts into effective actions.
The branch of social science that studies strategic decision-making is called game theory. The games in this theory range from chess to child-rearing, soccer to corporate takeovers, from marketing strategy to nuclear arms control.
Playing these games requires many different kinds of skills. Basic skills, such as shooting ability in basketball, knowledge of precedents in law, or a blank face in poker, are one kind; strategic thinking is another. Strategic thinking starts with one’s basic skills, and considers how best to use them. Knowing the law, one must decide the strategy for defending one’s client. Knowing how well one’s football team can pass or run, and how well the other team can defend against each choice, one’s decision as the coach is whether to pass or to run. Sometimes, as in the case of superpowers contemplating an adventure that risks nuclear war, strategic thinking also means knowing when not to play.
The aim is to improve one’s strategy I.Q. It is essential for one to get familiar with the different ideas and principles of strategic thinking; to apply them to a specific situation one face and to find the right choice there. When there are conflicts with each other, evaluate the relative strengths of different arguments.
As each ‘case’ will play out its own particular set of circumstances and you shall apply the different principles rationally and in measured impact. Also, there are times when there is no clearly correct solution, only imperfect ways to cope with the problem. Thus, accumulative learning curve will help to sharpen one’s strategic thinking skills to deal with more complex problems as one gain more experience over the ‘cases’. For now, embrace strategic thinking as a way of life and see the rewards unfolding.
Founder & Consultant
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