Paul Oestreicher
Paul Oestreicher

Thinking, like many other activities, occurs across a spectrum. We can think in ways that are concrete and narrow or we can be creative and visionary. There’s a lot in between, of course (and I’ve covered that in other articles).

There’s another continuum, though: Time. Sure, there are plenty of occasions when you want things to speed up (like when you’re crawling along in a sea of traffic or sitting with your mouth open in a dentist’s chair) but we mostly wish for more time.

Having and finding time is often the key to so many things and strategic thinking is among them. Dorie Clark wrote “If Strategy Is So Important, Why Don’t We Make Time for It?” in a recently reposted Harvard Business Review article. She cited a survey where 97 percent of senior leaders said, “…being strategic was the leadership behavior most important to their organization’s success.” Unfortunately, another study found “96 percent of the leaders surveyed said they lacked the time for strategic thinking.”

We should care that people don’t spend enough time thinking. We tend to focus on the actions, the tactics, before thinking about the strategies and objectives they’re supposed to support. What passes for thinking is often unfocused busywork, a churning of un-prioritized activities.

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke of one of the best pieces of advice he ever received about strategic thinking at a Stanford Graduate School of Business seminar several years back; it was from former President Bill Clinton. The president gave him one word: Scheduling. Mr. Blair channeled the guidance he received and remarked, “Where’s your thinking time? Where am I going? What am I trying to do? You have to create the space to be thinking strategically all the time.”

Strategic thinkers ask questions and gain insight through rigorous analysis of information. They look around the corners, predicting outcomes and the potential unintended consequences of a particular course of action. They prepare scenarios—from those with high probability but little impact to those with low probability but a high potential for damage. They evaluate who might be an advocate and who could be an adversary. They make conscious, timely decisions about where to play offense and where to allow things to go undefended.

Carving out the space—the time—to think strategically takes effort; it’s much too precious to waste. That’s why we need a way to optimize, to guide and focus the strategic thinking process. Here are my four R’s of Strategic Thinking for your consideration:

  1. Risk– potential impact of doing, not doing
  2. Range– short, medium, long term issues and influences
  3. Requirements– data, time, money, personnel
  4. Return on investment– financial, reputation, safety/security

In fast-paced environments, we’re often driven more by deadlines than the importance of the task or issue. Using the Four R’s, we can make more informed decisions and apply resources more effectively. So let’s not be too put off by a little process; it’s not a dirty word. Discipline is needed in finding creative solutions to our challenges and opportunities.

But perspective and flexibility are crucial to finding success with this or any other methodology. The weight placed on any of these components may depend on where you are in the organization, your responsibilities and their scope, and what you have to lose or gain.

Remember what George Bernard Shaw said: “Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.” With some dedicated time and thought, you have an opportunity to join ranks with the greats.


Paul Oestreicher, Ph.D., is a recognized expert in strategic communication, public affairs and issues, crisis and reputation management. He is the author of Camelot, Inc.: Leadership and Management Insights from King Arthur and the Round Table and the blog C-O-I-N-S: Communication Opinions, Insights and New Strategies. Follow him @pauloestreicher.