Strategic Thinking and Thinking Strategy: The Strategist’s Core Mental Competency

Image of Rodin's Thinker courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of Rodin’s Thinker courtesy of Wikipedia.


Strategic thought. Insight? Context? Perspective?

Pick up any copy of the Harvard Business Review and you’ll get a definition (or six thousand) for strategic thought (that’ll be $9.95 + tax, thank you very much). But our audience is more interested in the strategy of Ancient Greek origin – where the mergers & acquisitions are slightly muddier and slightly bloodier.

To unpack what exactly a “strategic thought” is, a useful starting point would be to describe strategy – which Emile Simpson calls “a dialogue between possibility and desire.” Others in the United States military community consider strategy to a balance amongst ends, ways, and means. But can we go smaller?  What would a micro unit of a strategic thought look like?

Let’s start with the idea that strategy is really a way to get to some objective or end.  Recently, a professor of psychology at New York University published a study which throws a bucket of cold water on purely positive thinking as the best way to get to that end point. What she found was that when people desire to achieve some task or objective, instead of using either a completely positive or completely negative approach – a hybrid between the two extremes is best.  Here’s how it works:

“Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.”

This process is known as “mental contrasting,” and is, in my mind, essentially the subatomic particle of a strategic thought. This concept is ripe for adoption within the strategist community as “mental strategic contrasting,” and ought to be strategist’s core mental competency: habitual mental contrasting which relates strategic ends to ways and means.

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  1. This would seem to have been Schlieffen’s (and the subsequent German General Staff’s) greatest mistake (dare I say ‘hurdle?); they didn’t seem to take into account major obstacles. I would have guessed that most strategists spend time thinking and rethinking about what and how everything could go wrong. To do otherwise would be a professional hubris which can be costly in the end.


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