- How can I keep this business afloat, given how poorly it’s been performing?
- How do I increase my standard of living, to feel like I’m in control of my life?
- How do I attain more professional influence and long-term impact?
- How do I strengthen my company’s competitive advantage?
- How do I ‘make a difference’ in my residential community to help improve educational access?
Answering these kinds of high-level questions call for effective strategic thinking.
Effective strategic thinking promotes good strategy.
What is good strategy?
Good strategy gets you positions of advantage (through resources, connections, reputation, job role, etc) – and through that positioning, it augments your capacity to be effective – to attain the ends you want.
In a nutshell, good strategy builds advantage and impact.
Strategy and Power
In academic studies of strategy, advantage and impact is assumed to revolve around power – growing your ‘pot’ of power and the ability to exercise it. Napoleon encapsulates this view.
I love power. But it is as an artist that I love it. I love it as a musician loves his violin, to draw out its sounds and chords and harmonies. Napoleon Bonaparte
But strategy doesn’t have to be power-focused in the usual sense of politics, economics, and the military.
For a couple of counterexamples: Sports (e.g. track and field) and games (e.g. chess) attract good strategists, many of whom are not motivated by power. Is Magnus Carlsen powerful? No, but he’s a great strategist.
And a medical professional may act strategically to spread good medical practices to save lives and a bigger scale, while not being power-hungry. Dr Greger comes to mind: celebrity status in social media, good reputation professionally, a big impact on health practices worldwide – but from an economic-political-military point of view, he’s fairly powerless.
But good strategy tends to empower us in a broad sense – it leads to advantage and effectiveness in a given domain. And strategy often does focus on power: ‘power-play’ may be a useful lens through which to get a feel for acting strategically.
Perhaps the most widespread arena for everyday strategy is in private or public sector career development. The word ‘career’ originates in the Latin for chariot on a racecourse, and the Romans were a highly careerist and strategic culture.
But there are alternative routes to develop strategic advantage outside of conventional career structures – networking and relationship-building, entrepreneurship, writing success, craftsmanship, artistic expression, celebrityhood, sporting achievement, community activism, and so on.
But generally pyramid-shaped careers provide the most custom-designed, efficient environments for far-ranging strategic enterprise.
Improving Strategic Thinking
This article is an introduction to interventions that help improve strategic thinking.
Strategic thinking and action lies at the heart of applied intelligence – of being smart in practical life. It enables us to take autonomous, purposeful direction in life and realize fulfilling life projects.
Strategic thinking is also critical for any kind of leadership role: good leaders think strategically. The word itself originates in a conception of leadership: the words strategía or strategiké found in ancient Greek texts, mean the art or skills of the general.
“Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character.” Norman Schwarzkopf
In this article we explore an approach to strategy we may call deep learning strategy.
Strategy as Linear Plan vs Double Loop Learning
Strategy is often conceived as running through a plan – a set of steps taken to achieve a long-term goal or objective.
But strategy is not an engineering problem. Conditions in which strategy unfolds – including the strategies of others – are constantly changing.
“You have to be fast on your feet and adaptive or else a strategy is useless.” Charles de Gaulle
And it’s difficult to keep motivated and persist with a long-range plan without continuous reinforcement of some sort. Reinforcement through feedback is important or the best-laid plans tend to unravel.
We need to deemphasize the ‘linear plan’ approach, and think of strategy as both goal directed and planned but also as an adaptive, non-linear, process involving feedback and learning.
A model that gets at this idea is the Double Loop Learning model (Chris Argyris, Harvard Business Review). Take a moment or two to look at the model and try to grasp the basic idea:
Chris Argyris uses the following analogy to get at the distinction between single-loop and double-loop learning:
[A] thermostat that automatically turns on the heat whenever the temperature in a room drops below 68°F is a good example of single-loop learning. A thermostat that could ask, “why am I set to 68°F?” and then explore whether or not some other temperature might more economically achieve the goal of heating the room would be engaged in double-loop learning— Chris Argyris, Teaching Smart People How To Learn
This learning model is directly applicable to strategic thinking. First goals, values, beliefs and mental models frame the strategic ends (why we do what we do), and then a game-plan is chosen and committed to (what we do) to attain those ends. The results of those actions (what we obtain) feed back to us and help us learn (through e.g. hitting targets) how to better clarify and organize our actions. In single loop learning, we bracket out the ‘why’, and focus on bringing about results through our chosen methods. Single loop learning can be considered as learning aiming at fluidity, efficiency and automatization. Single loop learning develops intuitive skill. Double-loop learning comes into play when the goals, approaches or mental models providing the framework for our intuitive skills needs evolution or revision.
When Harvard Professor Chris Argyris first developed this idea, he linked the advantage of double loop learning to the experience of systemic failure:
“because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure. So whenever their single-loop learning strategies go wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism, and put the ‘‘blame’’ on anyone and everyone but themselves. In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it the most.”
Failure – particularly systemic failure, where expectations are widely at odds with reality – provides a very useful opportunity for learning. But it takes a growth mindset to learn from failure.
Punctuated Equilibrium Metaphor
Punctuated equilibrium is a theory in evolutionary biology in which long periods of evolutionary stasis in a species are interrupted by periods of rapid evolutionary change. (The alternative to this theory is that species evolve gradually – called ‘phyletic gradualism’.)
We can apply the punctuated equilibrium idea to the double loop learning process. We devise our strategic goal and approach (governing variables), and choose a number of action strategies and techniques that we believe will help us achieve this goal. We then commit to these strategic actions over a decent period of time to see them through and get single loop learning underway. If we don’t get immediate results, we don’t immediately give up and jump to reformulating our approach. We stick with our approach, tools and techniques for a while. Give single loop learning time! It takes time to become consistent with our chosen repertoire of strategic actions. It takes time for our practices to become more efficient and relatively more effortless. There’s always more effort and inefficiency initially and results furthering our long-term goals may not be apparent in the early stages.
If you’re going through hell, keep going. — Winston Churchill
After letting our strategy work itself out over time, we assess it and engage in higher level second loop learning where we may adopt sharp changes in approach and tactics if needed. Now is the time to be a ‘general’ reflecting on the bigger picture!
The time-scales involved will of course depend on the context. In an MMA fight, first loop learning may take 2-3 rounds to ‘tune in’ and start to see the advantages. Or, conversely, to realize it’s time to switch the game plan. The fighter doesn’t go in there with e.g. a defensive strategy and quickly flip to an aggressive one if it doesn’t work for him in the first few minutes. In a long-term project to publish a book, first loop learning may need a month or two before it’s time to reflect and re-group at the second loop learning level.
The Psychology of Single Loop Learning
Being absorbed in single loop learning should be intrinsically rewarding – leading to a decent level of competence and skill, and even – given enough time – mastery and expertise.
Getting good at skills in these loops can lead to a psychological phenomenon called flow:
“In positive psychology, flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” Wikipedia
But even if flow is not forthcoming, 1st loop learning can lead to a level of intuitive, fluid skill that cognitive that results in automaticity. (My Ph.D. advisor Dr Walter Schneider built his early career on seminal work on automaticity.) Automaticity results when skill sets become automatic, effortless and habitual. Automaticity develops with expertise. With the intuitive skill of automaticity, working memory load is lessened, freeing up our mental workspace to for other useful strategies to come into play.
So for example, let’s assume the strategic goal we are after is attaining more professional influence.
To this end, we devise networking strategies that depend on socializing and skills in communication, reciprocation, fostering trust, and building friendships. This is our game-plan. We now commit to immersion in this game-plan over a few months – at the single loop learning level.
Initially we may be clumsy in our social skills and emotional intelligence, finding each social event an effort and stressful. But instead of giving up, we stick at it, problem solving and tweeking when things don’t go as expected. Slowly, slowly our social skills and EQ improves, we’re enjoying the intuitive skills and understanding we’ve developed. Within a year we’ve built our social network, and seeing results in our overall professional impact!
Since networking has now become relatively effortless and intuitive for us, we have more ‘bandwidth’ – more working memory capacity – to focus on new game-plans, furthering our goal of professional impact. Having ‘nailed’ a networking skill we may now have the headspace to focus on team building, for instance.
The networking actions we commit to are to be understood here as a skill set to learn and take pride in. We approach networking in the same way would might approach learning how to sail. We need to create conditions such that we isolate the learning process effectively, being deliberate and experimental with what we do, and focusing on the relevant kinds of outcomes to reinforce the right skills. Over time as the skill set is acquired, networking should be fun, and if not fun, certainly in some way rewarding – through a sense of pride or mastery.
Single loop learning here is not just a means to an end: it is an end in itself.
Single Loop Take-home
So psychological tip number one: make sure you choose tactics (‘strategic actions’ in the model above) that you want to learn how to get good at – to master. If you use blogging to spread your ideas, make sure you become a master-blogger. If you build websites to help others spread their ideas, make sure you become a real web-master.
In being a strategist, once you’ve set your course you need to be able to let the ‘big picture’ fade away, focus on your tool kit, and hone your craft.
The Psychology of Double Loop Learning
Considering the why of strategic action combines both the broader strategic goals themselves (more professional impact), but also the goal-directed game-plan we choose to play out in single loop learning (networking). These game-plans can be called tactics (‘action strategies’ in the model above).
A military tactic that Napoleon often used to great success in his battles was outflanking. This could be particularly effective if the enemy thought he was in retreat. This is shown in the schematic, where the red arrows depict the flanking maneuver while the main body of the army is in apparent retreat.
Napoleon’s game plans were typically (a) simple and (b) energizing / inspiring. They were be simple because like mathematicians he loved to isolate the ‘governing variables’ and give concentrated, elegant expression to them. He could only do this through deeper understanding and intellectual grasp of the dynamics of warfare and politics. His military tactics were – by analogy – like his pithy aphorisms, capturing truths in a compelling, insightful way. And they were energizing because other leaders under his command could themselves see how compelling his strategic insights into the field were. He gave clarity and coherence to all the knowledge that was held in common. Napoleon’s strategies were not, in this respect, tedious ‘to do’ lists or complex matrices of tasks that were easy to lose track of. They appealed to deeper understanding, and inspired soldiers’ hearts and minds.
In our networking example, single-loop learning results not just in intuitive expertise, but also new insights and connections about the ‘deep structure’ of social dynamics. These sort of ‘bubble-up’ with in-depth immersion in a domain, and feed into our goals, beliefs and mental models at the second loop level. At this level we can now devise more ‘deep learning’ based strategies moving forward. And this process continues and deepens. And for this to work, single loop learning is always done within the overall intent of becoming better positioned and effective – having advantage and impact.
Double Loop Take-home
You can’t always achieve ingenuity, practicality and simplicity in the game-plans you devise, but the deeper your grasp of an arena of action – in a given profession or sport, or industry or market- the more likely you are to learn and make this happen at the double loop learning level. The expertise and mastery obtained as a ‘craftsman’ at the single loop level feeds ‘up’ with increasing comprehension and insight into the underlying workings of the domain, provided you are continuously working between the two levels, and do not get lost in one. The double loop ‘strategic’ level needs to direct and inform practice at the single loop ‘hands on’ level, and the experience and expertise gained at the single loop level needs to open up broader insights and connections useful at the strategic level. We need big-picture technicians for good strategy.
A wealth of strategy literature communicates this conception of strategy, ranging from Boyd’s OODA loops in contemporary military strategy, to game theory, to AGILE business models.
With truly good strategy, you should end up with a combination of commitment to expertise and flow at the level of single loop learning, and inspiration through strategic grasp and ingenuity at the level of double loop learning.
Vitalik Buterin: Deep Learning Strategy
An embodiment of a good strategic thinking on the conception developed here is Vitalik Buterin, creator of Ethereum. Sample this interview with him to see the ‘deep learning’ ideas developed in this article in practice:
Vitalik has sufficient immersion and expertise at the single loop level such that he has a penetrating grasp of the deeper framework and dynamics of the field – the field’s ‘deep structure’ you could call it. Vitalik is a deep learning strategist. People who see deep structure clearly – have this sort of penetration into their arena – are positioned to be good strategists and have impact.
It’s also clear from the video that being smart is critical to Vitalik’s strategic success. You need mental processing power to learn your skills and grasp what’s going on. Napoleon – for a historic example – was known to have a computer-like mind.
The HighIQPro software app develops this conception of strategy through a series of tutorials in conjunction with neuroplasticity training of core cognitive capacity – the ‘bandwidth’ of our ability to process abstract information.
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