For where the rubber hits the road

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Written by Lix Hill-Smith on 1 November 2013 in Features

Everyone within an organisation needs to be able to think strategically, says Liz Hill-Smith

Too often strategic thinking is seen as the preserve of the boardroom. Managers and leaders within the body of an organisation typically have limited exposure to strategic tools and ways of thinking, and often admit to not understanding what 'strategic' actually means.

At the Berkshire Consultancy, we are in the privileged position of working with teams of managers and leaders from all levels of organisations on their development as strategic thinkers. From this experience, and through the conversations that take place with our learners, we have gained a unique insight into the thinking about, and perception of, strategic concepts at all levels in organisations.

As we introduce strategic thinking to senior and middle managers, we notice an initial absence of understanding of the language, tools and concepts available for enabling this kind of thinking. However, when we do introduce the concepts, and give managers a chance to explore and apply them to their own situations, we notice a tremendous excitement, connection and sense-making.

What happens is that our learners start to understand why change is happening in their organisation. When they do take a more holistic perspective, and a longer view, they realise why and how things need to change. One of the key aspects of strategic change that we open people's minds to is that there are inevitably winners and losers as it evolves. Knowing this, and working with this awareness with colleagues from other parts of the business, opens up a broader view. This leads to a greater interest in wanting to understand more about the wider purpose of their role, and to gain greater clarity on this. We actively encourage this, and deliberately engineer opportunities to explore that perspective within and beyond the classroom.

Another interesting thing that happens is that learners gain an appreciation that things are not as clear cut as they originally imagined and that there are often no easy answers. This can come as a revelation to those used to more black-and-white thinking, so we work to help them understand things from a more systemic perspective. In doing so, they experience a greater understanding of the challenges and uncertainties facing their leaders.

The impact of this strategic understanding on engagement

Engagement is closely linked to people having a clear sense of purpose in their role. Through gaining a better understanding of their organisation's strategic direction and their role within it, people typically feel more engaged in their work, and have a greater clarity about why they do what they do and how it supports the organisation's goals. For example, when a manager involved in doing chemical tests on a cleaning product learned how important the outcomes of those tests were for the sales department in selling the product, he was able to suggest alternative tests that gave more compelling results.

Crucially, people open up to see their place in the strategic system and the vital role they have in noticing shifts in the external world. These shifts may be part of a bigger trend when integrated across the organisation. For example, in 2007, when HSBC local bankers in small-town America started to notice more than average numbers of loan defaults on their patch, they asked their colleagues in other small towns and realised that there could be a wider trend going on. Their visiting CEO picked up on this trend, investigated further and HSBC soon pulled back on lending in this market. This was at a time when rival banks were going full guns into that sub-prime market. We all know what happened next, and HSBC emerged relatively unscathed, unlike most of its competitors!

When middle managers gain this insight, they are able to play their role in operations, finance, HR and L&D more fully as part of a whole. They have a broader context in which to make their decisions, and a fuller understanding of what kind of information is most important to share with colleagues and others in the organisation. They also learn how to prioritise their own workload so as to be more 'on purpose' themselves. This is often crucial for busy managers as they learn to manage and delegate a workload that will always be beyond their time capacity as individuals.

Vitally, our learners gain the confidence to enter the strategic conversation. As they are usually more closely connected than the executive suite to customers, patterns, moods, zeitgeists and new innovation possibilities, theirs are important voices in that conversation.

What is the strategic contribution that L&D can make?

Firstly L&D is crucial in making sure that the skills and capabilities of leaders in the organisation can cope with a future that has yet to emerge. The world and the current business environment is described as becoming more VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. This is not as we have known before, and means we need agile leaders, who are capable of making sense of an ever-changing and unfamiliar landscape and leading the ensuing change. It means giving people an understanding of strategic leadership and the tensions this creates. It means being able to manage one's own role in a purposeful and strategic way, being able to hold the space for challenging levels of rich dialogue, and being able to create the conditions for creativity and innovation to flourish. It also means being prepared to sacrifice one's own role and position for the wider goals of the organisation. These capabilities are becoming generic competences in an increasingly complex context:

  • discovering purpose What are we there to do? How does this define what we do and do not do, how we use resources? Gaining practise in defining purpose for one's self, one's team, and one's organisation is a powerful and helpful discipline. When we help people and organisations discover purpose, we notice how clarifying a process it is
  • creating differentiation What is the unique advantage that can be created over short, medium and long terms? Gaining clarity over what is different, and how this adds value, is a powerful and important step
  • decision-making Understanding the processes of decision-making, being able to create distinctions between key factors, and make effective choices is a crucial capability. The ability to create the conditions for real honest and open dialogue is crucial here
  • problem-solving Building the skills to define problems clearly, to look at them from different angles, to allow incubation in the subconscious, to be open to challenge and inspiration from many sources, and to bring creative thinking processes to bear on that problem
  • sculpting strategy This is about the process by which strategy is developed - how to design this so that the right information, and the right people, come together to let good strategy and decision-making emerge from the process. Again, the core skill sets of enabling dialogue and creativity are key components of this art.

We find that our learners can grasp these concepts, and usually enjoy playing with, and practising, the skills. However, there is a big challenge in making this work in their reality: being able to step out of a highly operational, task-driven mind-set from time to time, and to enter a more strategic way of thinking. Modern gadgets such as smartphones provide ready excuses to escape from a long-term thinking zone back into the often more attractive and accessible short-term immediate.

We have experimented with a number of approaches to help people create space and time for taking a more strategic approach to their role. These have included:

  • mindfulness practices It is increasingly being shown how mindfulness approaches can make the brain more able to focus, more able to take different perspectives, to make strategic decisions and generate creative options. We find these simple practices can be a lifeline for some participants
  • creating 'strategic breathing space' slots in the diary Carving short slots at the beginning and end of the day for connecting back to purpose and thinking about the big picture can be extremely helpful
  • defining habits and reminders for particular triggers We all have de-railers that get in our way when we are trying to shift our behaviours.  For example, saying 'yes, and...' rather than 'yes, but...' in a creative thinking session can have a very different impact, so finding ways of self-correcting these small but undermining habits can be very powerful - when we know why we are trying not to do our bad habit
  • reading the strategic wind Focusing on what we notice, what we are learning, what we are seeing that we are not expecting, and paying attention to it, as if we were sailing a boat and noticed a slight wind-shift across our cheeks
  • learning to really listen, to the meaning rather than just the words  Learning to ask probing and precise questions, to turn up the volume and clarity on the unheard voices, and to put the noisier voices into perspective.

All of these have proved effective. Often different practices work for different people. It is also essential that people understand why it is important for them to develop and use this strategic way of thinking, at least from time to time. Having experienced it in a positive way in a workshop setting, most want to use it more - and see the value.

How should L&D make its own contribution to strategic debate?

It is often struggling to get its voice heard - and frequently we notice that this is because that voice is not strategic enough in its perspective. Yet L&D has a vital role to play here in many ways. What does a shift to being a more virtual organisation mean for the L&D needs of the talent pool? How do you develop in people the skills to lead a virtual team? Or the skills to lead a constantly changing team? What are the future challenges and tensions that the organisational system may face in the future? How are these changing? What is needed to bridge the gaps? Is it a question of developing leadership agility, capability, mind-set or emotional and psychological dexterity? Is it a question of what leaders need to 'do', or how they need to 'be'?

How does HR define and sustain the unique differentiation and culture of the business when strategic changes are increasingly becoming multi-dimensional and complex in their impact? For example, plans to outsource elements of an organisation's activities can mean that a fruitful 'greenhouse' for growing talent accidentally goes with it, core competencies can be skewed, and capability constrained. What challenges will generations Y and Z present for leaders brought up with different hopes, aspirations and expectations themselves? How will the organisation motivate and retain these people? What are the implications for succession planning?

To be able to address these issues in a way that adds value to the business, OD and L&D leaders of course need to increase their own strategic thinking capability. Their capacities to lead dialogue, to act creatively, define problems, make decisions and sculpt strategy need to be strong and effective, so that they can bring to their organisations interventions that are powerful, strategically in tune, and sustainable in this ever-changing era. The very skill set they need to develop in others needs to be developed in themselves, and more.

While a good OD or L&D grounding incorporating a Master' s degree or CIPD study should provide a sound basis, many in L&D come from an activity-based training or coaching background where the emphasis is on process rather than outcomes and strategy. Being able to think clearly about the system under development, to highlight the 'taken for granted' assumptions and challenge these constructively, while getting hold of a budget for necessary L&D activity, demands political and tactical savvy. We notice that the best L&D professionals are always looking to expand their thinking through further qualification, learning in partnership with new people, exploring new horizons, and being ever-challenged by new thinking and ideas. They are not afraid to have their thinking stretched or challenged. There are many ideas shared online, through social and professional networks. However, not everyone has access to these, and many are unable to sort the wheat from the chaff in the clamour of noise in that media. So why does this matter? The natural forces pull us all into a short-term focus, our technologies, and our evolution, draw us unwittingly yet willingly into this vortex. Yet this can take us into disengaged workplaces, organisations creating misery, ill-health or debt, disconnected services, and frustrating customer interactions. When we look at the best organisations operating today, we see clarity of purpose, a high emphasis on creativity and innovation, and a willingness to engage in real dialogue. This ability to look up from our busy-ness from time to time, and to put it into a broader perspective and purpose, is essential for our survival.

About the author

Liz Hill-Smith is a lead practitioner at the Berkshire Consultancy' focasing on strategic thinking and innovation. She can be contacted via


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