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6 April 2021


How to make the move

This month, I am looking at the third of my predicted hot coaching objectives for 2021, with which we are back on more familiar territory, looking at the question of how to move from operational to more strategic thinking.

This is a classic challenge for many clients as they progress through their careers, particularly as their roles cross the management/leadership boundary.

The Institute of Directors describes the difference between strategic and operational thinking as:


Ambiguous, non-routine, complex
Organisation wide
Deals with significant change
Environment or expectation driven


Operation specific
Small scale change
Resource driven

In my experience, one of the key challenges in a shift to strategic thinking is in moving away from the comfort zone of knowing how things work, what to expect and how to plan for that, to the more ambiguous, non-routine strategic environment that requires a different approach to thinking.

I think there is a comparison here to the way we think in life generally. Overall, we can all work through the practicalities of operational life; shopping, finding a job, booking a holiday, choosing a school, etc. However, when it comes to more ambiguous challenges such as pension planning or making a will, very often we struggle to visualise the future state, what it entails, what will be required, and this is uncomfortable. So instead we focus on the here and now and do not make time for these future considerations. 

This is effectively our strategic life planning, however, and when supported by an advisor we can make the assumptions that are required to allow us to think through options, choose the appropriate ones for us at the time and put in place a plan to deliver on a given strategy. Once this is done, it becomes much easier to refresh the strategy (unassisted) as and when required.

The same shift is required to enable strategic thinking in the work environment and can be equally facilitated by an advisor who helps the individual move away from operational thinking approaches to start to explore the tools and techniques of strategic thinking (PESTLE, SWOT, Scenario planning, Trend analysis etc). These tools and techniques can be used to find “comfort” in working with assumptions and hypothesis that form the structure of strategic thinking. 

Coaching gives focus to a topic and asks the client to be honest about their knowledge, awareness, and feelings about that topic. The client verbalises and commits to exploring the topic and in doing so has already committed to lifting his or her head above operational thinking, starting to see a new horizon, originally beyond their comfort zone.

Whilst coaching is not training (teaching all the strategy development tools and techniques), it does allow the coach to work with the client to explore awareness of what strategy means, to better understand the strategic direction the organisation is taking, where areas of development are concerning strategic thinking, how to get more involved in shaping the future strategy of the organisation and to grow in confidence whilst doing so.

There is a further challenge to thinking strategically at work and that is: is anyone else there thinking strategically with you? 

People fear admitting that they are not sure how to think strategically and instead they bluff or avoid it; they may have been promoted to a level where they know they should be thinking strategically and yet they are not sure how to go about it. The people working for them assume their leaders are strategic and yet all they see is operational management, and hence further confusion regarding what strategic thinking entails. It is in part a failure of management development to teach strategic thinking and to create opportunities to practice it.

Charity Boards can be a perfect example of this. In such situations, trustees are responsible for setting the strategic direction of the charity and yet may not be strategic thinkers. Instead, they can be well-intentioned volunteers who are much more comfortable discussing the operational day to day, than in visioning what the charity should be delivering in five years, based on purpose; what will be the unmet need, who else will be playing in their space and how are they are going to fund operations at that point? 

To some degree, this is no surprise, as too many charity board meetings are spent looking down into the organisation and how it is performing, and very little time is dedicated to looking out at what others are doing, what is coming down the road and what they should be doing about the challenges they may face. The operationally-focused board meetings set the precedent, fail to help the trustees learn to think strategically, and set them up to fail when they need to engage with strategy development.

There is a lesson here for all organisations, to demystify strategy, be more transparent in how strategy development occurs and engage more future leaders in the process so that when their time comes to lead on strategy development it is not outside their comfort zone and they have the tools and techniques to think strategically at that point.

Coaching can play a key role in assisting future leaders to develop their strategic thinking, either on their career path to requiring it or on the hoof when it is needed (and they need to play catch up).

I hope you have found this blog useful and as always, if you have any questions regarding it or any other coaching topic, then please get in touch.

From the author:

As coaching is not an advice-giving service, these blogs are not written with the intention of proposing solutions to common leadership challenges. Instead, they are thought pieces with the aim of prompting the reader to think more deeply about the topic and reflect on whether it warrants further exploration, with or without a coach.

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