Conceptual Thinking is the Essence of Strategy: How You Think Matters

Strategic thought requires thinking “conceptually” as opposed to “sequentially.”  Sequential thinking weighs the pros and cons of each step against its immediate surroundings. Conceptual thinking requires that each step be measured against the larger goal. Perhaps this is best understood with an analogy.  Imagine going on a trip from point “A” to point “B.”

The fundamental problem with sequential thinking is that it does not focus on the destination. Rather, it looks at the immediate environment and an assessment of which way to go is made based on this narrow perspective. While this may ensure that rocks and pitfalls are avoided along the way, it is questionable whether you will get where you wanted to go in this fashion.

Conceptual thinking requires that you understand where you are going.

It focuses on the big picture.  Each step along the way is measured not just for its immediate efficiency but for its impact on accomplishing the ultimate goal as well.

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For example, in a military campaign, it might be more efficient to circle around and attack your enemy from the rear rather than to mount a frontal assault into prepared defenses.  Sometimes the “indirect approach” is more efficient.  Sequential logic will inevitably lead to the frontal assault, with its concomitant wasteful expenditure of resources.

The second problem is more pervasive, more difficult to address, and ultimately what undermines most attempts at strategic planning.

First, we must understand that strategic planning is not an event; it is a process.

It never stops until the game is over (and the game is never over-we hope).

The problem is that most people are sequential thinkers.  For them a strategic plan is like a set of directions telling them which way to turn at each intersection.  This method of thinking is acceptable until you run into trouble.  What happens if the road is blocked or there is a detour?  Again, the sequential thinker is OK so long as someone else has identified the detour for them.  But, what if the detour leads you away from your ultimate destination? What happens if the detour is unmarked or if another problem arises? Once the sequential thinker strays from the path, they are in trouble.

In contrast, the conceptual thinker understands that the strategic plan is a set of guidelines not rules.  They understand where they are going.  If they must stray from the path they know that, by adjusting their directions and returning, they will once again regain the chosen path. They always keep their eye fixed keenly on the ultimate objective, not the obstacles that are thrown into the path.

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In reality, both types of logic are necessary to formulate and implement a strategic plan.

Conceptual thinking tends to be most useful in the formulation stage and Sequential Thinking is helpful when implementing a specific plan. However, the focus must always be on the bigger picture-accomplishing the prioritized objectives.

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Dave Clark

Dave Clark taught Strategy at West Point and is a co-founder of FundingSage, which provides valuable information, tools and resources to entrepreneurs seeking to start, grow and fund a business.