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5 Characteristics of Strategic Thinkers

We have argued frequently that researchers are in the best position to provide strategic guidance to their organization.  As researchers we think about things like how you can get more folks to benefit from insight by sharing our foundational knowledge and how to embed customer knowledge in a way that fits executive decision-making processes.  That’s right…STRATEGIC thinking!

Innovation Excellence recently published a blog on  5 characteristics of the best strategic thinkers, and I think many of these will be familiar to your daily research lives:

  1. Open yourself to perspectives from multiple sources—this isn’t about having more data points than others, it’s about putting them together properly.  We’ve done the analysis, and know that decision makers feel more confident in their decisions if they used more data points to get to them.  But we also found that decision makers struggle to make the best decisions without help with interpreting the dataResearcher synthesis skills can give you a real leg-up in the strategic decision-making process.
  2. Incorporate BOTH logic and emotion into your thinking—emotional drivers matter, especially when you’re trying to get the organization to take action.  We have found that the most successful way to re-educate executives when their assumptions are wrong is by engineering learning moments: using multi-sensory experiences that make the decision makers feel the emotion that comes with new, convention-breaking insights.
  3. Seek options beyond today’s reality—don’t let the current state of affairs have too much impact on future decisions.  A great Research example of this is the trends trend.  Decision makers like to ask for trends to try to identify “the next big thing.”  But we’ve seen companies have much more success growing their company when they shift Research’s focus from megatrends tracking to opportunity identification.
  4. Question both the familiar and the to-be-determined—in other words, be curious.  As the Science channel promo goes: Question Everything.   We’ve done the quant on this too, and have confirmed that intellectually curious people provide significantly better insights to the organization.
  5. Accept open issues—this may be the most difficult for us.  As researchers, by nature we are looking for answers.  But the most successful Research departments are the ones that encourage principled risk-taking.  Waiting for all of the facts to come in to make the “right decision” will keep you waiting around forever.  Use your judgment when guiding the organization: it’s how true insights are made.

3 Responses

  • Terry Schmidt says:

    Great list of what it takes to be a strategic thinker, but strategic thinking is not enough — it must translate into action. The Association for Strategic Planning ( has a tag phrase — Think, Plan, and ACT. Too many people with strong strategic thinking skills are ineffective because they can’t translate their thinking into executable plans.

    My own book STRATEGIC PROJECT MANAGEMENT MADE SIMPLE (Wiley, 2009) offers a Logical Framework model that integrates strategic thinking with planning and action.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    This is quite discordant with my experience of mixing it with the best in the corporate/scientific world, like CEO Engineers.
    For a start, Terry, you are one phrase short. Should be think, plan, act, interpret feedback. Indeed, I’d rewrite the whole lot as

    1. Is there a problem with a large benefit if it is solved?
    2. Is there the start of a way to solve the problem?
    3. Which specialist skills shall I need to engage?
    4. What criteria have to be passed at each review?
    5. What is the criterion for completion?
    6. What does feedback tell me?

    BTW, there is seldom a place for emotion. Data trumps belief almost every time.
    One of the main attributes of a good decision makers is their ability to select specialist advisors and then to accept their advice (unless you know something they cannot).

  • Rob says:

    In reference to your “encourage principled risk-taking”. As a scientist this is generally not practical unless you have a 20 year history of success. Unfortunately this rationale generally does not get you funding, and examples of its success are not the norm. True, there are many great success stories that have come from “thinking outside the box”, but the media only propagates the success stories and the majority who go down this path are left without future funding and generally have to look for a career elsewhere. Its sad, but funding bodies, both in science and other sectors, understandably want a plethora of evidence before committing such funds.

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