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Strategic Thinking
A Discussion Paper

April 27, 1999 Prepared for the Research Directorate, Policy, Research and Communications Branch, Public Service Commission of Canada by Eton Lawrence1 Personnel Development and Resourcing Group

Table of Contents
The views expressed in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Public Service Commission of Canada1

1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6.

Executive Summary What is Strategic Thinking? The Liedtka Model of the Elements of Strategic Thinking Is Strategic Thinking Compatible With Strategic Planning? Conclusion References


“Without achieving the kind of detailed understanding of strategic thinking that we have today of strategic planning, we risk introducing yet another appealing concept to thestrategy lexicon that has little relevance to practising managers” (Liedtka, 1998).

Executive Summary
The purpose of this paper is to clarify some of the salient issues surrounding the concept of strategic thinking. For example, what is strategic thinking? How do we recognize it? Is it different from strategic planning? If so, is it a replacement for strategic planning? Can strategic thinking andstrategic planning be accommodated within the same strategic management regime? Current research suggests that strategic planning and strategic thinking are different sides of the same coin and each one on its own is necessary, but not sufficient for an efficient strategic management framework. Therefore, strategic thinking and planning must work hand-in-hand in order to reap maximum benefit.What is Strategic Thinking?
There is a lack of clear understanding of just what is meant by the term strategic thinking and this, in turn, has lead to considerable confusion in the strategic management arena. Thus there exists a clear need to precisely define strategic thinking so that this management paradigm can be objectively embraced and appropriately situated within the strategic managementcontext (Liedtka, 1998). Some authors, Ian Wilson (1994) for one, have suggested that strategic thinking is merely thinking about strategy. According to him, “The need for strategic thinking has never been greater . . . This means continuing improvement (in strategic planning) has profoundly changed the character of strategic planning so that it is now more appropriate to refer to it as strategicmanagement or strategic thinking.” This attempt to define strategic thinking as some kind of new and improved version of strategic planning leads to considerable confusion in attempting to elucidate the full implications of strategic thinking in its purest sense. Henry Mintzberg (1994), one of the leading authorities in the area of strategic management, by contrast, clearly emphasizes that strategicthinking is not merely “alternative nomenclature for everything falling under the umbrella of strategic management”. It is a particular way of thinking with specific and clearly discernible characteristics. In explaining the difference between strategic planning and strategic thinking, Mintzberg argues that strategic planning is the systematic programming of pre-identified strategies from whichan action plan is developed. Strategic thinking, on the other hand, is a synthesizing process utilizing intuition and creativity whose outcome is “an integrated perspective of the enterprise.” The problem, as he sees it, is that traditional planning approaches tend to undermine, rather than appropriately 3

integrate, strategic thinking and this tends to impair successful organizationaladaptation. These sentiments are echoed by two other leading theorists in the field, Prahalad and Hamel (1989), who describe traditional approaches to planning as “form filling.” They refer to strategic thinking as “crafting strategic architecture” but emphasize Mintzberg’s general themes of creativity, exploration, and understanding discontinuities. For Ralph Stacey (1992), strategic thinking is “. . ....
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