Thinking about strategic thinking is nothing new to me having spent a number of years at UW’s Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking trying to nail down what “it” is – and now working daily with the NLN circumplex to help clients balance strategic thinking, leadership development, culture design, and strategic execution. Part of that balance for me is about paying attention to which area we are leaning into at a given place in time and also coming back to the fulcrum in the center of the four to see how they connect and to manage the tension or competition that sometimes comes up.

In my last blog, I shared how I’d gotten “strategic thinking on the brain” while using CliftonStrengths 34 (CliftonStrengths) as a tool with one client while also prepping for a strategic retreat for another client the following week. This deep dive into strategic thinking led to creating a series of blogs about it.

  • The first blog explored how to combine two models of strategic thinking to better understand and explain how we at New Legends orchestrate strategic thinking with our clients.
  • This second blog in the series delves into why strategic thinking is not a soloist act, but rather something that needs to be an ensemble activity.
  • And the upcoming third of three explores the idea of a collective strategic thinking mindset as a source of strength and source of blind spots – and zooms out to how strategic thinking connects with culture, leadership, and execution.

Strategic Thinking – Thinking about Strengths

In my previous blog, I reviewed how 8 of the 34 themes in the CliftonStrengths inventory connect to a purpose-built model of strategic thinking called the LENS and how using these two models together can help orchestrate a full spectrum of strategic thinking activities. Here’s a little more background about how the survey works and how it can be used to promote strategic thinking. When someone takes this assessment, they see 177 pairs of “polar” opposite statements, and the result is a rank ordering of 34 positively framed themes or strengths. Each of the 34 talents ranked by the CliftonStrengths assessment have been cleverly sorted into one of four domains – Executing, Influencing, Relationship Building, and Strategic Thinking. Most of the reports provided by CliftonStrengths focus on the Top 5 rank-ordered strengths. Notably, this cut-off for looking at “top” strengths is arbitrary. I personally find that looking further down the list to include 10, 12 or more can be meaningful to the person I am coaching.

Let’s assume that everyone has the 34 talents in a metaphorical toolbox – and some number are tools that they keep in a top tray of the toolbox because they are comfortable using them. Lesser used tools that we feel clumsy using or don’t see the value in using often, get chucked in the bottom of the box. Arguably, we can dig them out and dust them off if needed, but we’d rather use the “tried and true” tools in the top tray. It’s conceivable that one leader has five frequently used tools in the top tray and another has 15 or even 20. The CliftonStrenths assessment only gives ranks and not numerical scores – so there is no way to know if two strengths are tied for 5th and 6th place, for example. That’s why being more flexible about the number of “top” strengths make sense from a coaching perspective.

Strategic Thinking – It’s Not a Solo Venture

So, a person can look at their top 5, 10, or even 15 strengths and compare this list to the top 5-15 strengths of someone else in their organization to see common strengths – as well as complementary strengths (“things you have as a strength that I don’t”). To make this comparison more meaningful, a person can also look at which of the four domains (Executing, Influencing, Relationship Building, and Strategic Thinking) show up in the “top tray” of their toolbox.

When it comes to the set of eight strengths from CliftonStrengths that fall into the Strategic Thinking domain, these indeed show up differently in different people and across an organization. One interesting thing I noticed in the group of 30 leaders we recently coached, was that two Strategic Thinking strengths (Context and Futuristic), seem to exist in tension with each other. Across 30 people, not one person had both Context and Futuristic as top 10 strengths. This means that people who have a strength at looking back to the past to understand the present and make decisions about the future (the Context strength) did not also have a strength at looking over the horizon and conjuring up creative visions of the future (the Futuristic strength). So at least for this organization, if the firm wants to be strong in both aspects of strategic thinking, they will need more than one brain involved in doing the strategic thinking for them! If this finding is true across other organizations as I suspect it is, it pays to be more inclusive of people with different styles and strengths during strategy formulation activities. It also pays to have process and facilitation skills to hold a productive tension between past-oriented and future-oriented thinking.

In the final upcoming blog, I’ll explore more about the relationship between the 8 CliftonStrengths Strategic Thinking strengths and how to orchestrate the spectrum of strategic thinking activities.