Planning Vs. Thinking

This story accompanies The Leadership Factor.

Monday, February 1, 2010
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Do the high-potentials in your organization understand the difference between strategic thinking and strategic planning? At many companies, they don't, says Rick Voirin, an adjunct professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and a consultant who's worked with many Fortune 500 companies.

"Often, thinking strategically is a euphemism for strategic planning," he says. "Planning is, by definition, a sense that there's a Point A and a Point Z, and simply a number of steps from point to point -- it's a linear process. Strategic thinking, by contrast, is a way of conceiving of a problem or challenge more holistically."

People who can think strategically can step outside their normal frame of reference and understand that it's only one of many possible frames, says Voirin.

"Publicly traded companies are limited by their ability to deliver quarter over quarter," he says. "The strategic thinker has to step back from that and see the landscape in a much broader context."

It's common for leaders to lose the ability to think broadly the higher they go in the organization, says Voirin. "For the most part, by the time they get to 15 or 20 years in the organization, they've been rewarded for knowing a lot and getting a lot done, and that's fine for getting to a position of leadership. But it doesn't prepare them for the day when their success formula is challenged."

In a four-week executive-education course he helps teach at Fuqua, Voirin and his co-presenter, University of Michigan professor Gordon Hewitt, challenge students by using the example of Apple's iPod -- how a small computer company with only a 5 percent share of the market was able to come out with this revolutionary new product, while Sony Corp., which had all the components inside its organization to create the iPod, failed to do so.

"No one at Sony could step outside the organization and see this broader landscape," he says.

Next, Voirin breaks students up into small groups to look within their own organizations for potential "iPods" -- the "killer apps" that may be lurking within its business that the company (or a competitor) could come up with.

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"Most of the folks we work with have gotten very comfortable with data-driven thinking, so when you give them a more abstract concept and challenge them to create something meaningful out of it, it's a challenge -- they're struggling to learn a language where the facts aren't all immediately available," he says.

The students spend additional weeks taking courses in innovation and social relevance.

"The key is to expose them to new ways of thinking," says Voirin.

Students also learn about "productive conversational techniques" for explaining to their bosses the need for change. The goal is to help students create a six-month plan in which they go back to their organizations and instigate productive change. "In some cases, bosses want you to go out and get some learning, but they don't want you to come back and rock the boat too much," he says. "Executives can be penalized for thinking too differently."

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