If we could measure or asses our ability to think strategically, a lot would be gained. We could, for instance, test the effects of various development programs aiming to improve our strategic thinking. Or, we could pinpoint what each us of more specifically need to develop. And, of course, we could identify the people that should do the strategic thinking for us.

Without a set understanding of what strategic thinking entails, it is clearly impossible to asses the ability to thinking strategically. And we do not have a clear and shared understanding of what it is. Many have suggested definitions – both in academia and in the consulting and guru world. Few, if any, of them, are distinct enough to be used in assessments. One approach is, however, promising. Elliot Jacques, a Canadian researcher, developed a theory known as Stratified Systems Thinking. In his model, he suggested an intuitively appealing continuum from Operational (thinking) to Strategic (thinking).

Operational – in this context – is defined as the thinking required in a spectrum of high certainty, low ambiguity, immediate and clear feedback, and low complexity. It is the one a context of familiarity. Strategic is than, consequently, thinking in the spectrum of high uncertainty, high ambiguity, delayed and unclear feedback, and high complexity. It is the context of the unfamiliar.

This model helps us to come up with one way of understanding the concept of strategic thinking, and it indicates a way of defining the cognitive requirements of strategic thinking. It also provides us with a promising way of assessing the relevant cognitive abilities.

The South African psychologist Dr. Maretha Prinsloo developed a way to measure people’s cognitive preferences when solving unfamiliar problems. The test, called Cognitive Process Profiling (CPP), is a computerized problem-solving test based on her model of cognition. In the test, the tested person is asked to solve a number of problems simulating increasingly more and more complex, ambiguous and uncertain. In other words more and more unfamiliar. The test defines five cognitive domains ranging from Pure Operational to Pure Strategic – indicating a higher ability to think strategically.

We are currently investigating if CPP can be used to asses people’s strategic thinking ability. In a lecture given as a part of the 350 years anniversary of Lund University, I gave a short introduction to the model and the test. Enjoy!

 

 

The man breaking out of the boulder is a piece of art given to my university 100 years ago. The artist is Axel Ebbe, and the sculpture was given to Lund University in 1918 for its 250 anniversary. It symbolizes mankind breaking out of the darkness of ignorance. It has been my favorite sculpture since my first year at the university. It is also an obvious symbol of my current research interest.

The concept of strategy and therefore strategic thinking has a long history. I am, however, beginning to think that we got stuck in increasingly less and less suitable assumptions. In short, this assumption is that analytical tools based on more or less carefully researched experience is the only way to think strategically. Textbooks in strategy is full of such devices. In B-schools around the world, we teach our students how to use these tools. I am beginning to think that we need to break out of that boulder!

In an article named “A multidimensional conceptualization of environmental velocity” by MacCarthy et al. (2010) introduces a simple model for talking about the future and our ability to foresee the future. This paper introduces the concept of “Environmental velocity” as an important analytical concept. The authors have developed a framework that examines the variations in velocity across multiple dimensions of the environment (homology) and the causal linkages between those velocities (coupling). They then propose four “velocity regimes” based on different patterns of homology and coupling and argue that the conditions of each regime have important implications for our ability to foresee the future and therefore for strategic thinking.

One way of reading the future using the model would be to say that has velocity – that is speed and direction – increases for critical dimensions in our strategic homologous and with complex couplings we are not able to rely on experience as guidance in strategic thinking and decision making. Hence, tools based on such experience is less relevant or valuable. Sticking to the thinking coming out of this stubborn trust in the lessons of the past might actually prevent us from seeing how to navigate the future.

In a changing world, it seems safe to assume that the marginal utility of experience is falling over time. What I learned yesterday might be very valuable tomorrow but less so ten years from now. The more radical or disruptive the changes we experience around us, the more rapid the marginal utility of experience will fall. If that is the case, we need to be careful in using the strategic/analytical tools of yesterday.

This is the starting point of my research interest.

What does Strategic Thinking entail?

Do we need a “new” way of thinking?

Do we need to break out of the boulder?