While everyone is capable of both strategic thinking and planning, it’s natural to have a preference for one over the other. The whole brain thinking framework is one way to understand whether strategic thinking or planning comes more naturally to you.

Here’s a description of strategic thinking and planning from ‘The Whole Brain Business Book’, by Ned Herrmann and Ann Herrmann-Nehdi:

Strategic thinking:

  • Anticipate, invent, and understand potential future events and issues.
  • Imagine and create alternative scenarios.
  • Destroy your presumptions to free up new perspectives.

Planning:

  • Assess and understand your options.
  • Decide on your objectives.
  • Determine the direction to take to achieve those objectives.

The key point is that strategic thinking is most useful at the beginning of a project, before planning.

For those of us working in the local government space, whose credibility relies on evidence-based policies and plans, it can feel a bit fanciful to move into strategic thinking mode. The good news is, once you have gained insights from a strategic thinking process, you can take those insights and apply them to a planning process.

Here’s some encouragement from ‘The Whole Brain Business Book’:

  • “The techniques are so indirect that they seem like a back road, but in reality they represent a shortcut to attaining the perceptions needed to think strategically and subsequently build a strategic plan.”
  • “The fresh perspectives that are gained through this transformation greatly benefit the more formal strategic planning processes that follow.”

Try this: Draw the issue and outcome as vehicles

Here’s an exercise from ‘The Whole Brain Business Book’ I have used to access my strategic thinking at the start of a new project. I highly recommend trying this at the start of your next project.

  1. On a blank sheet of paper, draw a car or some other vehicle that represents your issue, as you see it today. (You don’t need any skill in drawing to do this – stick figures are fine.) Have fun with it. This does not have to be a realistic car, for example, you can have as many steering wheels as you want.
  2. Sketch in the environment. Is the road bumpy? Is there a dead end? A long road ahead? What does the terrain look like.
  3. Next, draw another vehicle (it does not have to be the same type of vehicle) that represents how the outcome should be in the future, if you are successful.
  4. Now compare the two. What is different? What can you learn about what might need to change to get you to that successful point in the future?

The results

I was surprised at how definite I was about the vehicle I drew in the first step of the exercise. And when I drew the surrounding environment it showed up some things I needed to explicitly address.

My ‘future success’ vehicle included three key elements that made sense immediately.

I made rough notes on the differences between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ drawings, but the real gold came in answering the second question: ‘What can you learn about what might need to change to get you to that successful point in future?’

This has given me five key points to guide my project – and I would not have had such clarity without doing this exercise.

Last words: On strategy versus planning

I started thinking about this topic after watching this video – A Plan is Not a Strategy. It was posted on LinkedIn by Seamus Boyer, who helps councils and central government with strategic content.

The video has a business focus, but the following points are relevant to the local government sector:

  • Planning is quite comforting because it’s about what you are going to do, and you are in control, whereas strategy is about an outcome you want to achieve but don’t have control over.
  • A strategy identifies what we believe will happen if we do something – but we can’t guarantee it. This is why strategy will have uncertainty associated with it. However, having a strategy gives you the best possible chance of success.
  • A strategy can be short – don’t make it too complicated.