Dr. Jeffrey Kuhn

Through my university research on strategic leadership, and my advisory work with senior leaders over the past two decades, I have observed a strong correlation between a leaders’ ability to frame and pose profound strategic questions and their ability to think strategically. In other words, strategic leaders think in the form of questions—the ability to frame strategic questions and engage in strategic dialogue is a key dimension of strategic leadership.

Big-Picture Thinking

In my work with executives, I can generally gauge a leader’s ability to think strategically by the quality of the questions they pose. The strategic questions a leader poses are the outward manifestation of his or her internal thinking process and their general orientation to the business. Strategic leaders tend to be broad-gauge thinkers and wide categorizers. They ask big-picture questions that serve as an early warning system, so the organization doesn’t get blindsided by the future. Well-framed strategic questions help leaders make sense of complex market dynamics and patterns. The questions a strategic leader poses, whether they are spoken or simply reflected upon by the leader, are not designed to be answered on a point-by-point basis per se but are meant to marinate and produce a deeper set of questions that produce deeper understanding into market dynamics.

Types of Strategic Questions

Accomplished strategic leaders tend to have a broad repertoire of strategic questions for recognizing market patterns and assessing the strategic and financial health of the enterprise. 

Here are a handful of examples to illustrate:

  • What are the key trends and patterns in the broad market landscape and what threats and opportunities do they present?
  • How are industry and competitive dynamics evolving?  How is the basis of competition shifting and what are the implications for our business model?
  • How are customer lifestyles, attitudes, needs, and purchase and consumption patterns evolving? How will customer and economic value be created in the future?
  • What are the key trends and dynamics in our distribution channels?  What are the implications for our business?
  • What is the strategic and financial health of our organization?  What is the longer-term growth and profitability picture? What are our next-generation growth engines?
  • What new capabilities must our organization build to sustain its market leadership and capture emerging growth opportunities? How must our culture evolve?

Big-picture, enterprise-level questions such as these are central to the long-term competitiveness and economic viability of the firm and help a leader rise above the operational fray and maintain a strategic perspective.

Industry Disruption and Reinvention

Today, nearly every industry, from financial services to farming, is undergoing some form of disruption, transformation, or reinvention. Low-cost digital technologies have lowered barriers to entry precipitously, giving rise to new types of competitors and business models, creating an accelerating world that has quickened commoditization cycles and shortened corporate lifespans to where they can be measured in dog years. Paradoxically, the digital revolution has brought dramatic growth in strategic complexity—socioeconomic, geopolitical, technological, customer, channel, competitive, and organizational—placing immense cognitive demands on leaders. When scanning the external landscape for disruptive threats and emerging opportunities, leaders are unsure of what they should be looking at in the external landscape, let alone how.

Questions Are the Answer

As Gabriol, the 11th century philosopher noted, “A wise man’s question contains half the answer.” In simple terms, the better you are at framing strategic questions, the better you will be at recognizing the intersecting trends and patterns that create and shape markets.

As an organization matures from a fledgling start-up to industry stalwart, the field of vision often narrows, and the organization finds itself peering at the outside world through a peephole. Individuals undergo similar life-cycle changes as they grow and mature from starry-eyed children with boundless curiosity and imagination to buttoned-up executives who interpret the future through the prism of past experiences. Left unchecked, these perceptual filters become self-limiting and self-sustaining, suppressing the

long-term imaginative thinking that is essential to sustained value creation. This explains why, in incumbent firms, most growth opportunities are hidden in plain sight.

You will be amazed at what you can see when you wipe the residue of past experiences from your lens and scan the market landscape with the curiosity and imagination of a five-year-old. Subtle cues that are invisible to the naked eye will become crystal clear when you sharpen your ability to frame strategic questions and develop your strategic eye.

About Dr. Jeffrey Kuhn

Dr. Jeffrey Kuhn is a distinguished thinker, author, strategy advisor, and educator with expertise positioned at the intersection of strategy, innovation, growth, and organizational renewal and vitality—the work of strategic leadership. His work centers on helping senior business leaders develop the capacity to think and lead strategically in dynamic market environments undergoing profound change. He holds a doctorate from Columbia University and has served on the faculty of Columbia Business School and Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a founding member of the Strategic Management Forum and is a Fellow at the Royal Society of Arts. In 2017, Dr. Kuhn was inducted into Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches.

Dr. Kuhn is doing three more IMS programs this month. Learn more about them HERE.

Dr. Jeffrey Kuhn

Aspiring young leaders often ask me, “How can I learn to think and lead strategically?”  Normally, I smile and reply, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”  The answer is, of course, practice.  Lots and lots of practice.  That’s how you get to Carnegie Hall, and that’s how you learn to think and lead strategically.

Strategic leadership is a form of leadership that is future-oriented and broad in scope. It emphasizes building the organizational capabilities and culture that strengthen a firm’s competitiveness and its ability to create customer and economic value on a sustainable basis. Strategic leaders speak a language of growth and value creation, rather than cost-cutting and downsizing.

Role of Strategic Thinking

Strategic thinking is the engine room of strategic leadership. It’s impossible to lead strategically without the ability to think strategically. They are two sides of the same coin. Strategic leaders have an innate ability to recognize patterns and seize emerging growth opportunities in dynamic market environments and tend to have strong conceptual skills and immense creative capacity that is fueled by an insatiable curiosity, openness to new experiences, a vivid imagination, and eclectic interests.

Many leaders struggle with strategic thinking and regard it as an inborn trait possessed by members of the lucky gene club rather than a cognitive capability—a mind-set and muscle—that can be developed.  It’s is my belief, however, that with the right development experiences, working under the watchful eye of a master teacher/coach with expertise in enterprise-level strategic thinking and transformation, operationally oriented managers can develop the capacity to think and lead strategically in dynamic market environments that are undergoing profound change. I have watched scores of operationally oriented managers develop the capacity to think and lead strategically in my executive development programs.

Building Your Strategic Muscle

Here are some tips and development activities for developing your capacity to think and lead strategically. 

Read Business Journals to Develop a Repertoire of Patterns

Strategic thinkers are expert pattern recognizers. A leader learns how to think strategically one pattern at a time. Commonly recurring patterns in business include a disruptive threat from a new entrant, organizational decline and renewal, growth spurts and growth stalls, industry maturation and commoditization, and price wars that create a death spiral.

A great way to develop a repertoire of patterns is through reading business journals and case examples in business books. Most of the strategic leaders that I have worked with are voracious readers and lifelong learners. Reading periodicals like Businessweek or the Wall Street Journal is a great way to develop broad, cross-industry business acumen and a repertoire of patterns.

Develop Eclectic Interests

It’s also important to develop eclectic interests outside of your work environment to develop your creative capacity. It doesn’t matter what you pursue, whether it be music, art, or birdwatching. The key is to pursue an interesting activity outside of work that brings your innate creativity out of hibernation and allows you to look at the world from different perspectives.

Develop Networks Outside Your Industry

It’s also vital to cultivate professional relationships outside your industry in order to develop a broad, cross-industry perspective. Thinking outside the box requires spending time with people in different boxes. Industries become inbred over time, so it’s important to connect with “switched on” leaders outside your industry to gain fresh perspectives that you can apply to your organization.

Participate in Strategic Projects

Experience is by far our best teacher. One of the best ways to develop your strategic thinking skills is by participating in enterprise-level strategy projects at your organization. You can also ask a senior-level mentor to shadow and/or support he or she on a shorter-term strategic project. During my doctoral studies, I worked with a retired CEO on strategy projects in an apprenticeship-type arrangement to hone my strategic thinking skills. The experience accelerated my development immeasurably and continues to bear fruit.

Maintain a Strategic Thinking Journal

Finally, it’s a good idea to maintain a strategic thinking journey to capture your insights, observations, and reflections.  Nearly all the executives I have worked with over the years maintain a journal to capture key insights.

Enhancing your capacity to think and lead strategically is clearly within your grasp provided you have the passion and drive and are willing to invest the time to hone your craft.  There are no shortcuts in life.

You have to practice, practice, practice!  That’s how you get to Carnegie Hall!

About Dr. Jeffrey Kuhn

Dr. Jeffrey Kuhn is a distinguished thinker, author, strategy advisor, and educator with expertise positioned at the intersection of strategy, innovation, growth, and organizational renewal and vitality—the work of strategic leadership. His work centers on helping senior business leaders develop the capacity to think and lead strategically in dynamic market environments undergoing profound change. He holds a doctorate from Columbia University and has served on the faculty of Columbia Business School and Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a founding member of the Strategic Management Forum and is a Fellow at the Royal Society of Arts. In 2017, Dr. Kuhn was inducted into Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches.

Dr. Kuhn is doing four IMS programs in October. Learn more about them HERE.

Author Michael Roberto

Imagine that your organization faces a complex problem, and your team seems to be stuck. People appear to be fixated on a narrow range of potential solutions, none of which seem particularly innovative. How can you encourage divergent thinking and help your team generate more creative options? Let’s examine three techniques for broadening perspective and uncovering novel solutions.

Find Analogous Experiences

First, encourage your team to search far and wide for analogous situations and experiences that might offer useful insights. Too often, we search narrowly for solutions, looking at our past experiences or at our competitors’ best practices. When we benchmark our rivals, we often find ourselves imitating them, rather than innovating. Rampant benchmarking can lead to herd behavior and strategy convergence in many industries. Instead, encourage your team to think about how people in other industries or fields must approach this particular problem. Ask yourself: Who else has had this type of problem and how have they addressed it? Research shows that we tend to generate more novel solutions when we mine analogous contexts for inspiration. For instance, a pediatric hospital in the United Kingdom wanted to enhance patient safety. They knew that errors often occurred during “handoffs” – i.e., when patients were transferred from one clinical team or unit to another. The doctors asked themselves: Who is world class at executing handoffs? That question led to them to study Formula One Ferrari racing teams. Errors decreased dramatically thanks to ideas sparked by examining this analogous context. Similarly, firms from a range of industries have developed novel solutions to customer service problems by studying firms such as Ritz Carlton Hotels, a firm known for delivering an exceptional customer experience.

Become Unfocused

Second, ask your team to step back and “un-focus” for a moment. We all know that multitasking proves highly counterproductive in many cases. However, complete focus has its limitations too. We can get trapped into a particular way of thinking and too mired in the details. Sometimes, we simply need to step back and gain some distance from a problem to achieve a breakthrough. How can we encourage our team to detach from their work in a constructive manner? Achieving distance means more than simply taking a break or going for a walk. Creative ideas often emerge when we embrace a bit of “time travel” as a means of gaining fresh perspective. We look forward and reason back. For instance, Amazon asks software developers to imagine what the press release and frequently asked questions document will look like before they start a project. After leaping ahead in time, they work backwards to re-imagine their proposed solution. In the military, teams conduct pre-mortems as a means of sparking new ideas. In this technique, we imagine that our concept has been implemented and has failed at some point in the future, and we ask ourselves how we are likely to explain the failure at the postmortem. Envisioning this scenario can help us see our proposed solution in a whole new light. Achieving some distance in this manner helps us get “unstuck” at times and enhances divergent thinking.

Play Devil’s Advocate

Finally, directing one or two team members to play the devil’s advocate can spark creative solutions, provided that these individuals approach the role in the right manner. Devil’s advocates can quash creativity if they simply act as naysayers, seeking out all the reasons why an idea won’t work. If they lecture the team repeatedly, they can quickly become a broken record. Others will stop listening to them. Moreover, they can discourage people from proposing novel solutions for fear of facing withering criticism. The best devil’s advocates help the group reframe the problem when people are thinking too narrowly about a particular category of solutions. They can enhance divergent thinking if they ask thoughtful questions, rather than pretending that they have all the answers. Constructive devil’s advocates enhance creativity if they help a team generate new options rather than simply criticizing existing proposals. Simply, the right kind of tension, applied with care, tends to unleash the creative juices. The most successful leaders do not always generate novel solutions to perplexing problems themselves. They often enable others to develop creative ideas. They marshal the collective intellect of their teams. To accomplish that, leaders need to apply the right techniques to help their people get unstuck, broaden their perspective, and look at problems in a whole new light.

About Prof. Michael Roberto

Michael Roberto is the Trustee Professor of Management at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI. He joined the tenured faculty at Bryant after serving for six years on the faculty at Harvard Business School. His research focuses on how leaders and teams solve problems and make decisions. The Case Centre ranked him #25 on their list of the 40 best-selling case study authors in the world. He is the author of three books including Know What You Don’t Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen, Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer: Managing for Conflict and Consensus and his latest book, Unlocking Creativity: How to Solve Any Problem and Make the Best Decisions by Shifting Creative Mindsets.