The tenth critical skill in strategic thinking is the ability to suspend judgment.
Better strategic thinkers should consider ideas and explore possibilities before they impose any evaluation. This does not mean that a strategist never applies judgement. It means that they should apply analysis without judgment before they critique ideas.
Openness is a critical skill in strategic thinking because we tend to evaluate too quickly.
There are situations where this tendency was a life saver for early humans. Seeing a lion without instantly classifying it is dangerous and could be a fatal failure. Decisiveness, which is often viewed as highly desirable in a leader, should not be equated with quick evaluation.
In strategy, we are not going to be in immediate danger.
There are no split-second threats to anyone’s life when considering a strategic course of action. There may be longer term threats – things that could be dangerous next year, or in five years, but the nature of strategy is that it is not urgent.
This means that the very useful critical skill of instant evaluation is unnecessary in strategic thinking.
Further, instant evaluation can distract our thinking from a deeper understanding of the situation. With some distance from the need for evaluation, we can look at the implications of a situation and identify opportunity. This is especially useful when we encounter things like threats. For example, seeing the lion from a distance might be a clue that there are things a lion wants to hunt nearby. Being close to good hunting was also critical for early humans – it meant food. So, a more strategic view of the presence of a lion would suggest one would not starve in a place where lions live.
In business strategy, this approach to information can yield profitable insights.
Restaurants cluster around freeway exits because there are lots of customers nearby, looking for food. The quick judgment might be that such a place is a fine location for a restaurant. A more strategic analysis would bring up some interesting ideas. First, there is more competition here. Second, customers tend to seek convenient locations for certain types of restaurants. Third, being close to the customer is a competitive advantage, and so on. These ideas contain countless opportunities for deeper understanding. For example, restaurant competition is acceptable if you are targeting a different market niche (think Cracker Barrel vs. McDonalds). You might also notice that convenient locations are only beneficial for certain types of restaurants.
The quick judgment in this situation might be that you are looking at a fine place for a restaurant.
Suspending judgment allows us to ask important questions, like why is this a good place for a restaurant? Would my restaurant thrive in this competitive, convenience-oriented location? What are the disadvantages of convenience? By postponing judgement, we gain the ability to look at a strategic situation in a light by which we can create strength out of weakness and opportunity out of threats.
Suspending critique is not easy.
The instinctive desire to seek safety and run from danger, for example, are very strong emotional responses. Unfortunately, these once-useful instincts are often the enemy of great strategic choices. In nature, ecological niches can be seen where a strategically good choice can be found. For example, birds that roost or nest near predators like crocodiles are less likely to be threatened by other predators. In business, we can spot niches like this by looking for situations that repel competition. One might, for example, enjoy less competition by seeking customers that others deem unattractive. Only by suspending judgment can we, for example, build a highly profitable business around customers who take a long time to pay, or customers who are difficult to work with. Or think about insurance underwriters who focus on high risk customers.
This critical skill is vital in the creative process of finding opportunities for a business.
The simple, instinct-based opportunities tend to draw competitors. Great strategy often comes from seeing opportunities that repel competitors, which creates a more sustainable advantage for those that can hold back their judgment. This is one reason we want to suspend judgment in the opportunity generation process in strategic planning. The other – equally important – reason is that criticism instantly interrupts the flow of creative ideas. So don’t jump the gun with premature judgment. Remember, the creativity of your strategic ideas may be the competitive advantage that is key to your successful future.
How have you taken advantage of this? Do you closely examine things that may give rise to feelings of fear or greed in your competitors?
If you’d like to learn more about strategic thinking and more specifically the importance of openness, Simplified Strategic Planning is a great place to start. For great ideas on how to improve the quality of your planning, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Consider holding a one-day workshop on Simplified Strategic Planning.
Dana Baldwin is Senior Strategist with the Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.