For the past seven years I have taught a course on strategic thinking to students at the University of Cape Town. I ended up doing this by accident.
Prof John Simpson, well known for starting and leading the UCT Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing was the previous convenor of the course and asked me to help him out after a guest lecture I did on the changes we were navigating in our startup bank.
With the Prof’s wanting to focus on the Unilever Institute after his retirement, I took over the convening of the course a few years later.
I was intrigued to bring together my business experience of strategy and the academic world of strategy. I started on a steep learning curve attempting to create an environment where final year Business Science students could think more strategically about the business world that lay ahead.
The students come predominantly from a finance background (60%) which is roughly split in half between those aiming to become CA’s and those not. The next biggest segment is marketers and then actuaries, organisational psychologists and a handful of people majoring in technology.
I quickly identified three significant challenges that I faced in teaching the class.
- Students adopt a strategy of getting to the other side of exams with as many marks and as little work as possible.
- The text books are more suited to academics than to preparing students to be strategic thinkers.
- The education system encourages the finding of ‘right answers’ over asking useful questions.
The first item is a possibly a universal given for any student.
The second I addressed by replacing a single text book with selected readings from contemporary journals and books covering a wide range of topics related to thinking strategically.
The third I decided to take on as a challenge which still engages me.
My experience of working in my own business and working with many large and small organisations over the past 25 years has confirmed that there are few easy answers in the world of strategy. Leaders who are seeking a single answer to a strategic challenge are possibly naive or missing the point.
The problem with strategy, is that we do not know how the future will play out and despite our best guesses, plans or budgets, to think otherwise is irrational.
So rather than look for an answer to this dilemma, a good question offers many nuances that are useful to our thinking process. Open and insightful, a question which challenges our thinking can lead us on a much more useful thought process than spending our time trying to find the single correct answer.
While a question is the start of this process, an answer often signals to us that we have reached the end and can stop looking. This finality, while tempting, can be fatal for a business person on the way up or at the pinnacle of success.
Questions and answers are of course linked. However we need to resist jumping to answers before we have spent enough time on the question.
Anyone who has tried to implement the suggestions in a business advice book will confirm there are no model answers in business.
We have more chance of success by getting clear on the question. By refining it and polishing it and allowing ourselves the indulgence of thinking deeply over a period of time, new possibilities can open up.
In a world with all information available to mostly everyone all the time, the opportunity for eureka moments is long gone.
Our challenge comes in navigating information, making connections, synthesising and integrating. A good question is a great pilot for this navigation.
And to my students frustrated by the lack of clearly defined answers in the world of strategic thinking, here are some questions.
How can you engage in the practice of strategic thinking?
How have the answers you have arrived at been tested by insightful questions?
And, isn’t there something else you may have missed?
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