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Copyright © eContent Management Pty Ltd. Journal of Management & Organization (2009) 15: 17–30.

Perspectives of strategic thinking:

From controlling chaos to
embracing it
Political Science Department and WO Farber Center for Civic Leadership, University of South
Dakota, Vermillion SD, USA

Political Science Department and WO Farber Center for Civic Leadership, University of South
Dakota, Vermillion SD, USA

There is an increasing focus in today’s organization on measuring results and calculating return on
investment. Efforts of administrators today to control organizational endeavors are essential and
generally aligned with current best practices. Control mechanisms, however, ultimately prove to be
only part of the puzzle. Strategic planning, encompassing such activities as planning, performance
measurement, program budgeting, and the like, has proven to be very useful but limited. It is a tech-
nical fix that gets at only part of the question of organizational effectiveness and only deals with
some organizational dilemmas. In the face of such realities, the notion of strategic thinking emerges
to fill the gaps and overcome the limitations that experience with strategic planning has proven to
exhibit. This paper presents an integration of leadership ideas, strategic thinking and traditional
planning activities in an effort to make important connections and important distinctions.

Keywords: leadership, management, strategic planning, strategic thinking, systems theory, organizational
philosophy, public sector

T he struggle for organizational effectiveness

in public organizations is ongoing at all lev-
els. The efforts to attach specific measurements to
ment, program budgeting, and the like, has
proven to be very useful but limited. It is a tech-
nical fix that gets at only part of the question of
specific objectives with a specific budget have organizational effectiveness and only deals with
proven to be very useful, inherently logical, and some of the dilemmas organizations face.
not nearly enough. The efforts of public adminis- In the face of such realities, the notion of
trators to control organizational activities are strategic thinking emerges to fill the gaps and
essential, necessary, and aligned with current best overcome the limitations that experience with
practices (see Berry 1994). But they ultimately strategic planning and strategic management has
prove to be only part of the puzzle. Strategic proven to exhibit. The goal of strategic thinking
planning, an umbrella term used to summarize is much the same goal of organizational leader-
such activities as planning, performance measure- ship. While strategic planning is upward focused,

Volume 15, Issue 1, March 2009 JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT & ORGANIZATION 17

Matthew R Fairholm and Michael Card

looking at ensuring how tactics link up to orga- the Organization’s Strategic Goals…, 2. Links
nizational goals and strategies, strategic thinking Daily Tasks to Strategies, or Long-term Per-
is holistically-focused, looking to ensure that spectives…, 3. Develops Work Plans Based on
meaning and purpose are diffused throughout Strategic Priorities..., 4. Develops Strategies in
the organization so that appropriate goals and Support of the Mission...
tactics can be developed to meet the real needs of
the organization. Strategic planning in this sense The Inter-American Development Bank lists
is more linked to the work of classical manage- Strategic Thinking as one of its Leadership Com-
ment, while strategic thinking is linked more to petencies and defines it this way (Personnel
the work of leadership (Shelton & Darling 2001; Decisions 2001):
Whitlock 2003; Focus 2008). Drawing much
Strategic Thinking: Staying abreast of IDB
from classic strategic management and public
comparator institutions, political, economic,
sector literature, this paper presents an integra-
and technological developments. Going
tion of leadership ideas, strategic thinking, and
beyond the questions that are routine or
traditional planning activities in an effort to
required for one’s job, and recognizing the
make important connections and important dis-
broader ‘context’ of ‘big picture.’ Identifying
tinctions that can be useful in private and public
key or underlying issues in complex situa-
DEFINITIONS AND CONTEXT This definition is significantly different from
Defining strategic thinking is still a work in what the Bank lists as its definition of Planning,
progress in academic literature. We see the begin- one of its Managing Resources Competencies
nings of a theoretical foundation for the strategic (Personnel Decisions 2001):
thinking competency emerge, but more is to be
Planning and Implementing: Translates strate-
done. The consulting world and human resource
gic goals and priorities into realistic and flexi-
departments have also taken up the charge and
ble plans and programs; monitors the
begun, at least, the definitional work of strategic
implementation of plans to ensure that key
thinking. The effort is to distinguish traditional
results are achieved.
strategic planning from the more general notion
of strategic thinking. The U.S. District of Columbia government
The U.S. Internal Revenue Service offers included Strategic Thinking into its Manage-
another definition of Strategic Thinking as a ment Supervisory Services development activi-
leadership competency which offers another ties. Early efforts to define the term combined
clearly different comparison to strategic planning such ideas as conceptual thinking, information
(Internal Revenue Service 2001): seeking, clarifying complex data and situations,
and learning from experience.
Strategic Thinking: Formulates effective The President of the Public Service Human
strategies that take into account the external Resources Management Agency of Canada and
influences on an organization from a national the President of the Public Service Commission
and global perspective. Examines policy issues of Canada outlined an updated list of key leader-
and strategic planning with a long-term per- ship competencies in 2005. These competencies,
spective leading to a compelling organizational in their view, reflect the skills, abilities, and char-
vision. Determines objectives, sets priorities acteristics needed in the public sector to meet
and builds upon strengths. Anticipates poten- current and future challenges. They define strate-
tial threats or opportunities. 1. Understands gic thinking as follows:

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Perspectives of strategic thinking: From controlling chaos to embracing it

PS leaders advise and plan based on analysis of strategic thinking differ in approach using com-
issues and trends, and how these link to the mon terms to managers: how (actions taken to
responsibilities, capabilities, and potential of achieve a strategy), what (defining goals and
their organization. They scan an ever-chang- objectives worthy of pursuit), and why (the values
ing, complex environment in anticipation of based rationale linking strategic capabilities with
emerging crises and opportunities. They devel- positioning. Our rationale to draw these distinc-
op well-informed advice and strategies that are tions is to clarify different types of strategic think-
sensitive to the various needs of multiple stake- ing because if we call everything strategic
holders and partners, reflect the strategic direc- thinking, we create confusion and undermine our
tion of the PS, and position the organization own credibility. Four simple categories may help
for success (Key Leadership 2008) decipher the differences and nuances of the many
definitions. Table 1 describes these approaches in
While only a very few, these citations serve to more traditional strategic vocabulary.
illustrate the definitional work going on in pub-
lic organizations with respect to strategic think- TABLE 1: F OUR APPROACHES AND DESCRIPTIONS

ing. Below we find the attempts of scholars and Approach label Description
researchers to define strategic thinking. For How Strategy as Plan
example, Abraham (2005) asserts that the search What-How Strategy as Position
for alternate appropriate strategies is actually What-Why-How Mission-Based Strategy
strategic thinking in action. Allio (2006: 4) Why-What-How Strategic Thinking or Vision
defined strategic thinking as ‘the systematic Based Strategy
analysis of the organization and the formulation
of its longer-term direction’. The goal is to find The how approaches: Strategy as
clarity on what we do in this realm of organiza- plan
tional life so that we can do it better, more Some define strategic thinking only as glorified
explicitly. planning. The ‘how’ approaches imply the exis-
Why worry so much about the definition? It tence of a pre-determined set of objectives
is because differences without a distinction are and/or a mechanism to receive them. This is
more useful in debate class than in practical most apparent in public sector agencies when
application. Differences with a distinction, how- missions and mandates and even timelines are
ever, challenge us to see and do our work in new handed down to public mangers by legislative
ways. Such distinctions help us both analyze our bodies. Management conducts strategic planning
work differently and develop different skills to to determine the most appropriate means (set of
apply. Initially, then, strategic thinking seems to actions) to achieve those objectives.
be 1) fundamentally different than strategic plan- The How approach, though, ultimately focus-
ning and 2) more innovatively practical. es on traditional strategic planning which asks
Many definitions for strategic thinking have how we are to achieve mission priorities and out-
emerged. They range from ‘thinking about plan- lines which actions should be taken when. Mis-
ning’ to engaging in a holistic approach to orga- sion objectives and goals are assumed from the
nizational life that allows you to see and feel the nature of the business and made explicit by man-
issues you and yours are and will be facing. Again, agement so that plans can be made to methodi-
we label these efforts the beginnings of a defini- cally account for activity designed to achieve the
tion of strategic thinking because these defini- end result. Hamel and Prahalad (1989) refer to
tions have not coalesced. In the following this traditional way of strategic planning as fill-
sections, we want to clarify how these types of ing out forms. However, Wilson (1994) suggests

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Matthew R Fairholm and Michael Card

we have improved upon past strategic planning which to operate, and these resources must be
models so much that what has emerged is some- valuable, rare, inimitable, sustainable, and appro-
thing more usefully referred to as strategic think- priable. Porter (1980; 1985) provides another
ing or strategic management. To these kinds of framework to assist in strategic thinking as orga-
approaches we now turn. nizational positioning. In essence, Porter argues
the organization must be positioned in an indus-
The what-how approaches: Strategy try that has the potential for success, or that the
as position organization and its strategists (and by implica-
Thinking about planning, or thinking before tion, its managers as well) must make changes in
planning, is a natural evolution from the ‘how’ operations (the value chain) to find an environ-
mindset. This approach varies in its application ment where they can exploit their competitive
but basically demands that we become clear on position for superior performance. Oster (1999)
what we are to do in the context of current has modified Porter’s five forces model to include
external and internal affairs and then devise third-party payers as a ‘buyer.’ This is important
proper plans and monitoring systems to make in that it makes this What-How approach appli-
sure we do the right things (see Wootton & cable to the public and nonprofit sectors.
Horne 2002). The what-how approaches are Armed with such information, an organiza-
about disciplined thinking leading to organiza- tion can determine its comparative advantage, its
tional focus. Birnbaum (2004) suggests ‘focus’ is strategic niche, its position in the industry and
the key ingredient to good planning and is the devise clear statements of what the organization
very thing that makes planning strategic. Cou- needs to do to maintain or improve its position-
pled with an appreciation for good people in the ing. The what-how approaches often utilize mar-
organization, careful management of processes, ket segmentation techniques to provide the focus
and the development of an intimate understand- necessary for disciplined thinking about posi-
ing of their markets, focus is essential to organi- tioning the organization relative to the customer
zational success. in the private sector, and to the client in New
To capture these ideas and determine focus, Public Management and traditional public sector
planners (thinkers) have various tools at their organizations (see Gulick 1937). The what-how
disposal, such as SWOT analysis for Strengths, approach does not, however, specify which set of
Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, or PES- customers or clients should be first the subject of
TLE scanning for Political, Economic, Social, this focus, apparently leaving this for an applica-
Technological, Legal, and Environmental, or tion of economic decision criteria. Traditional
BACHA analysis for Blindspots, Assumptions, mission statements help clarify where the organi-
Complacency, Habits, and Attitudes (see Tan zation should focus its efforts, though. With a
2000; Jenkins & Backoff 1985). In the SWOT well-constructed mission, organizations are in a
approach, for instance, organizational planners better position to determine steps to achieve
identify organizational strengths that can be cap- their methodically devised goals (their ‘whats’)
italized upon to form the resource base from using traditional planning techniques as found in
which the organization uses to capture advantage the how approaches noted above.
from opportunities and to avoid threats in the
environment. These schemes were developed in The what-why-how approaches:
the 1920a, and were further developed into the Mission-based planning
resource based theory of competitive advantage. This third category of definitions for strategic
Barney (1995; 1997) and Grant (1993) claim thinking revolves around the notions of vision-
that organizations must have resources from ing, scenario building, and forecasting to achieve

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Perspectives of strategic thinking: From controlling chaos to embracing it

a desired outcome. Saloner et al. (2001) suggest plan to accomplish the mission and achieve the
that planning and the development of planning objectives that flow from it.
documents are no substitute for thinking. In In the public and private sector, missions are
essence critiquing the previous two approaches, often set in statute or ordinance or ‘given’ by the
they suggest that many planning processes dwell founder. However, they do need to be massaged
too much on the ‘to do’s’ of tactical implementa- to fit existing systems and processes. The purpose
tion and on resource allocation and too little on of the economic rent-seeking firm has little varia-
building a coherent mental model of the busi- tion except that it is to maximize profits or to
ness. Rather than a once-a-year formal exercise, return a cash flow at a rate of return in excess of
strategic thinking is, in their view, an on-going the cost of capital. And the social responsibility
frame of mind in which the general manager of business literature casts some doubt on these
constantly tracks strategic assets and the external as the sole purposes of the organization. Hence,
environment to ensure that the logic of the firm’s the private firms also must massage their mis-
strategy is aligned with the firm’s internal and sions and take into account systems and process-
external contexts. es at play. We see, then, that specific missions
In this sense, strategic thinking is about infer- have more variation than one often assumes and
ring (based on current knowledge, needs, and resemble Mintzberg’s notion of strategy as ‘per-
wants) future Whats and why they may or may spective.’
not occur, and then devising plans (how) to han- The what-why-how approaches are the domi-
dle such potential eventualities. Such an nant model of strategic thinking today. Hunter
approach requires the creation of a vision based and O’Shannassy (2007) reviewed their own and
on legitimate assumptions, expert analysis, and other’s work in strategic planning in the 2000s to
what-if thinking that is communicated through- review the relationship between strategic plan-
out the organization and implemented through ning and performance. They noted that contem-
good management and monitoring processes porary strategic management and planning
(Atwater, Kannan & Stephens 2008; see also practices followed traditional approaches in Aus-
Forrester 1971; Senge 1990). Moore (1995) tralian major corporations. The firms used com-
developed a positive theory of managerial behav- petitive analysis techniques, market share and
ior, asking questions like ‘What kind of business growth matrices, etc. They also reviewed other
are you today and what kind do you want to be period pieces to note that executives said they
in the future?’ These questions form the founda- preferred analysis but found that intuition
tion of the what-why-how approaches. Alford (apparently defined as thinking) was really more
(2002) explains the importance of (and methods important in the final decision making process.
to) determining the Whats (the missions and Hunter and O’Shannassy go on to say:
purposes) of public sector organizations by realiz-
the regression results clearly evidenced that the
ing and analyzing the notion of exchange, coop-
creative, instinctive, people-oriented, partici-
eration and compliance that take place in the
pative aspects of strategic thinking had more
customer-based approach. Ultimately, this
influence on company performance than the
approach endeavors to foresee or forecast various
rational mode with its use of classic tools such
potential futures and from those potentials
as the Boston Consulting Group matrix and
choose the most appropriate which are often
competitive analysis (Hunter & O’Shannassy
called missions or visions that anticipate specific
2007: 30).
goals. The organization is then clear on what it
wants to be and why and is in a better position This is not an easy process, though it seems
to plan the proper implementation or tactical apparent that it is an essential element of any dis-

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Matthew R Fairholm and Michael Card

tinction to be made between planning and tions (see Abramson 1996; Frost & Egri 1990).
thinking. Camillus (2008: 100) noted that ana- That may be what Mintzberg (1994) alludes to in
lytical skills of strategists and their analytical his pivotal work decrying the pervasiveness of dis-
tools ‘…can’t develop models of the increasingly jointed planners in modern organizations. Strate-
complex environment in which they operate.’ gic planning, as it has been practiced, has really
This notion of ‘wicked problems’ is not new (see been ‘strategic programming…. Planning has
Ansoff 1965, Jenkins & Backoff 1985), but has always been about analysis – about breaking down
seldom been resolved. Camillus suggests that the a goal or set of intentions into steps, formalizing
first step in resolving complex integrated prob- those steps so that they can be implemented
lems is to focus first on organizational identity: almost automatically and articulating the antici-
What is fundamentally important to the organi- pated consequence or results of each step’
zation? What competencies does the organiza- (Mintzberg 1994: 109). Mintzberg identifies a
tion have and how does it view success. These are different competency, or set of activities, that need
questions about what the organization values. to be a part of successful organizations. He says:
This reflects Mintzberg’s (1994) classic debate,
strategic thinking is …about synthesis. It
reflects the important of leadership to strategy,
involves intuition and creativity. The outcome
and points to the next approach.
of strategic thinking is an integrated perspec-
tive of the enterprise, a not-too-precisely artic-
The why-what-how approach
ulated vision of direction…. Strategy making
Though the previous definitions help popularize
is not an isolated process. It does not happen
strategic thinking, essentially, strategic thinking
just because a meeting is held with that label.
is a unique competency of leadership based more
To the contrary, strategy making is a process
on organizational philosophy than organizational
interwoven with all that it takes to manage an
technicism. Derek Abell (1980) explained that
organization. Systems do not think, and when
the most fundamental task of a strategist was to
they are used for more than the facilitation of
determine who will be served by the organiza-
human thinking, they can prevent thinking
tion (who will the customers and clients be?),
(Mintzberg 1994: 109).
what will be offered (products and services), and
how will we create and provide our products Mintzberg’s thesis begins to reflect a substitute
and services to customers and clients? We wish for (or perhaps a complement of ) the traditional
to add the concept of ‘why’ to the trio of con- scientific, reductionist approach to organizations.
structs that are used as the starting point of a It is a systems approach recognizing the benefits
strategic effort. That is, the why refers to the of a holistic view of organizations (see Lawrence
logic that ties the economic logic, the organiza- 1999; Liedtka 1998). This is in line with what
tional logic and the core processes together to Beckhard and Pritchard (1992) say is the appro-
create value for the firm or society (see Sanchez priate stance to engage in a fundamental change
2004). So we see that strategic thinking involves strategy for an organization; that is, to challenge
strategic logic, but perhaps a logic that is more the ideas of control and stability while embracing
holistic in nature. the internal and external context of the organiza-
Strategic thinking is understanding that the tion and the organizational work. Sanders (1998)
world may not always work in linear, methodical adds to the discussion by explicitly linking strate-
ways – that organizations and those working gic thinking to systems thinking as informed by
within them must become agile, flexible, relation- the science of complexity and her notion of
ship-savvy and wise as they continually adapt futurescape. Stacey (1992 in Lawrence 1999: 4)
plans to meet emergent, even, ambiguous situa- also offers that strategic thinking is ‘using analo-

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Perspectives of strategic thinking: From controlling chaos to embracing it

gies and qualitative similarities to develop cre- FIVE FOUNDATION CONCEPTS

ative new ideas…(and) designing actions on the Part of the enduring appeal of strategic planning
basis of new learning.’ Such an holistic and non- is that many may feel they do not have a handle
linear perspective to strategic thinking is funda- on the entire picture of the organization or its
mental to the Why-What-How approach situation. To cope with that discomfort, the
because it provides current and future views of usual tack is to take on the immediate and criti-
organizational life while grounding us at the cal, the tactical so to speak. Planning out such
same time into a bounded set of meaningful tactical processes and steps is good, practical
organizational values and activity. management. Furthermore, to such planners,
Basically, we need to comprehend why things worrying about what might come next is not
operate the way they do and we need to under- only ‘impractical’ it is a time consuming effort.
stand that organizational wisdom comes not Besides, how can you know? Such worrying and
from programming and prediction, but rather work does not lend itself to traditional scientific,
from an understanding of human motivations, predictable approaches.
formal and informal organizational values, cul- It does, however, lend itself to new, holistic
ture, and inter-and intra-organizational relation- approaches that the Why-What-How approach
ships. With a firmer grasp of the Whys of social hints at. While more refined definitions of strate-
and organizational interaction, we then can have gic thinking are still emerging, the main focus
a clearer picture of what we should, could, can, usually remains on the goals or outcomes of the
and cannot do, within those contexts. In fact, it organization. Even in the systems approach,
is a process of defining the values and culture, strategic thinking is compared to a disciplined
organizational paradigms, and purposes of an approach to thinking about the outcomes of an
organization (sometimes an effort fraught with organization and the relationships inherent
discomfort). amongst the many parts of the organizations. No
However, those Whats become much more matter how important focusing on goals, out-
meaningful in terms of shaping individual and comes, and processes is, strategic thinking must
organizational behavior, because they are based be founded on more basic (at least very different)
on individual and organizational values. From principles if it is to be distinct from planning.
there, the Hows are more informed, more realis- More fundamental than goals and outcomes are
tic, taking into account the qualitative as well as concepts like purpose, meaning, and values.
the quantitative aspects of action planning. In a When people in organizations are clear about
sense, we in organizations are bounded by a their real (not apparent) values commitments,
vision field that makes sense of our current and their purpose and meaning, they can then begin
future potential, while keeping us identifiable to see why their goals and outcomes are either
and sustainable as a distinct organization with sensible or incongruent. They also begin to see if
specific purposes, values, and goals. This their actions are reasonable, time-bound, or too
approach requires a focus on relationships, lever- inflexible. Starting with goals does not allow us
age points, and outcome measures of success to determine if the goals are valid or proper, nor
rather than concrete milestones, step-by-step if the subsequent actions planned to achieve
procedures, and statistical reports (see Malmberg those goals will work as dictated. Values and pur-
1999; Weinberg 1996). It, therefore, requires dif- pose become the measuring rod and the criteria
ferent sets of leadership skills and techniques to determine the efficacy of any goals, outcome,
than some management tenets would dictate (see formal or informal process, or activity. The orga-
Fairholm 2004b; Wheatley 1999; Parry & Proc- nizational skin and bones that are goals and out-
tor-Thomson 2001). comes become enlivened by and infused with

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Matthew R Fairholm and Michael Card

organizational soul which are the values, vision, Technical expertise is the life blood of a well-
and underlying reasons for being. It is these managed organization. However, organizational
‘mystery systems’ (Herzberg 1984) of organiza- philosophy is the lifeblood of a well-lead organi-
tions that we are after. And it is fundamentally zation. The difference is stark. Strategic thinkers
different from (though fundamentally related to) are organizational philosophers and generalists
the outward system that is characterized by who overcome certain technical limitations to see
organization charts, performance measurement the broad context of their work and, therefore,
plans, and budget documents. Strategic planning better achieve wise, meaningful organizational
works on the skin and bones; strategic thinking results. Leaders, through formal positional
works on organizational soul. authority or through the maneuvering of person-
Below are five statements about strategic al power, must shed their technical training and
thinking that begin to help us focus on the val- devote themselves whole-heartedly to the work
ues, vision, relationships and feel of organiza- of organizational generalists. The skills of a gen-
tional life. To think strategically one must: eralist, however, are underemphasized in most
graduate and development programs (and many
1. View oneself as an organizational philosopher promotional reviews). Hence, people best poised
more than as a technical expert. Philosophy is to exert strong leadership toward achieving
not a word often associated with hard-nosed important organizational goals, rely on technical
practitioners. While traditional philosophers skills that may not get them there.
think about the grand ideas of life and living, Strategic thinkers (or organizational philoso-
organizational philosophers devote much effort phers) ask important questions and integrate the
in untangling the complexities of life within answers. What is the purpose of the organiza-
organizations. Organizational philosophers love tion? Why does it exist? Where did it come
to learn about their organizations, the grander from? Why is it here? What might make it go
contexts in which they operate, the interactions away and what happens to the people and to the
within the organization structure, be it formal or original reason for being if the organization does
informal, and they foster continual organiza- cease to exist? What makes life in the organiza-
tional learning – the stuff of organizational wis- tion meaningful? How does the organization fit
dom. Charles Handy (1995), a philosopher into the grand scheme of other organizations? Is
turned organizational consultant asserts that the formal structure of the organization indica-
there is no one way to manage an organization – tive of the realities of organizational involvement
it is much more a creative and political process or do the informal structures and networks better
than many expect. Organizational philosophers define the organization’s character, values, and
want to know how it all works and see the pat- culture? These and others are essential questions.
terns of collective action inherent in the culture They are what real strategic thinking consists of,
and traditions of the organization so they can because they give us a clearer vision of the Whys
influence the collective towards the wisest use of of organizational life so the Whats and Hows
resources and the wisest relationships amongst make more sense and are more efficacious.
the people. In this sense the much talked about For example, people in a particular local gov-
‘learning organization’ (see Senge 1990; Vaill ernment permitting office saw themselves tradi-
1996) can only take place if the organization tionally as engineers, inspectors, and ‘paper
and people within it engage in some sort of pushers.’ Their mission was clear and routine.
philosophical review of what they are doing, When asked to be a part of the economic devel-
why they are doing it, and what they could or opment activities and begin outreach to cus-
should be doing. tomers and start a ‘building ambassador’

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Perspectives of strategic thinking: From controlling chaos to embracing it

program, they saw no sense in it. The tasks they functions charged with doing the activities.
were now asked to perform were not only foreign Strategic thinking integrates organizational activ-
to them, they were contrary to what they had ity and planning in such a way as they both
been doing for years. The skill sets and sense of inform each other. Third is the fallacy of formal-
purpose they had developed over time did not ization, which suggests that through sound
match up to the new direction of the organiza- analysis, the creation of logical procedures, and
tion. Frustration, confusion, and setbacks were the implementation of specific tactical control,
the norm. Strategic thinkers would understand we can normalize and make repetitive most if not
that changing tasks alone is insufficient to achiev- all organizational activities to achieve routine
ing a real programmatic shift. They would see the organizational outcomes. However, experience
big picture and help people repaint it so that the suggests that such control is more of a dream
new tasks fit and the new purpose made sense. than reality. Reality tells us that anomalies, the
fickleness of human behavior, and the limitations
2. Distinguish strategic planning from strategic of analysis play a significant factor in organiza-
thinking. Fundamentally, strategic thinkers tional outcomes and to disregard them is risky
make a real conceptual distinction between and leads to incomplete planning.
strategy and tactics, thinking and planning. What strategic thinking demands, then, is the
They recognize a real difference between the ability to synthesize rather than analyze, and the
How approach and the Why-What-How focused attention to comprehend and internalize
approach and they operate based on the distinc- the formal and informal functions of the organi-
tion. They come at the need for thinking and zation. This allows for flexibility, innovation, and
planning from very different places. Strategic creativity to be as important if not more so than
planning to them is about control, prediction, procedure and routine. The differences between
analysis, and programming. Strategic thinkers, traditional planning and strategic thinking
however, recognize different foundational skills become more readily apparent when we consider
that revolve around understanding, synthesis, these fallacies and the mindset needed to over-
and the inherent independence of external and come them.
internal organizational actors.
Strategic thinkers apply the lessons learned 3. Adopt a values, vision, and vector orientation
from Mintzberg’s (1994) three inherent fallacies rather than a goals, objectives, metrics mentality.
of traditional planning. First is the fallacy of pre- Strategic planning relies heavily on concepts such
diction, the assumption that we can actually con- as mission, objectives, key result areas, long and
trol events through a formalized process that short-term goals, metrics, performance measure-
involved people engaged in creative or even rou- ments, action plans, and tactics. These are terms
tine work. Strategic thinking recognizes that essential to good management of the organiza-
more ambiguity exists in organizational life than tion, but they are also concepts that reflect many
management has previously been willing to of the false assumptions found in the fallacies
admit. Second is the fallacy of detachment, listed above, such as the ability to control and
which assumes we can separate the planning predict and the flawlessness of analysis and pro-
from the doing. There is still a persistent notion cedure. But management as an organizational
that we can plan something detached from the technology demands such assumptions because it
experience of doing it. The starkest example of does demand control and predictability. Perhaps
such detachment is having stand alone planning this is where it is easiest to see why strategic
departments charged with programming organi- thinking is linked more to leadership as an orga-
zational actions that are totally separate from line nizational technology than it is to management.

Volume 15, Issue 1, March 2009 JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT & ORGANIZATION 25

Matthew R Fairholm and Michael Card

A simple way to view management is to use a planning and programming, organizations by

pneumonic popularized by Gulick (1937): POS- necessity assume different foundations to organi-
DCoRB, which stands for planning, organizing, zational activity. Some writers apply new science
staffing, directing, coordinating, reporting, and concepts to the work of organizational life and
budgeting. These activities or functions are thus clarify these new foundations. One useful
essential to good management and lead to goals, idea is that each organization is unique and clear-
objectives, metrics, and accountability. But lead- ly bounded in its scope and purpose, yet at the
ership is linked more to holistic, philosophical same time is constantly in interaction with out-
notions that help the organization not to be side forces. The trick is to make sure the organi-
accountable per se (meaning able to be account- zation can maintain its identifiable nature over
ed for), but rather responsible (meaning able to time while also allowing environmental condi-
respond and to be responsive). tions to effect it (see Goldstein 1994; Wheatley
A simple way to view leadership is to use the 1999). Strategic thinking in this sense is about
Four V’s conception where each V stands for a maintaining organizations as identifiable entities
critical concept in the technology of leadership over time, while changing and adapting to meet
(see Fairholm 2004c). The fours Vs explain that future demands.
values trigger behavior and reflect meaning, pur- Seeing information as the lifeblood of an
pose, and commitment of both leader and led. organization is the key to success in this strategic
Visions operationalize the values set; making thinking activity (Wheatley 1999). Rather than
sense for others what the values really mean or restrict and control information coming from
what they can do for us now and in the future. within and without an organization (as strategic
Vectors operationalize the magnitude and direc- planners are wont to do), leaders must recognize
tion of vision-driven action and are akin to the the importance of free and easy access to infor-
idea of group missions. Voice is shorthand for mation. In this way, information can serve a self-
that which makes the leadership relationship organizing and evolutionary purpose for an
work – the nature of the interaction (or lack organization. The strategic thinking goals are
thereof ) between leader and led – and empha- thus grounded in the notion that leaders must
sizes the notion that the leadership relationship is share information with and receive information
essentially a voluntary one based on the level of from others. By thus doing, the order and self-
alignment with the values, vision, and vector at organizing benefits are unleashed and obviate the
play. These notions of the leadership phenome- need for strict control measures.
non are essentially what strategic thinkers focus For information to play this critical role three
on because these notions help us figure out the organizational skills or activities are essential to
Whys and Whats of organizational life; it is the both the strategic thinking process itself and in
pre-work to strategic planning which ultimately the strategic objectives that emerge. The first is
leads to specific managerial tasks. In sum, the the idea of feedback and feedback loops – a dia-
reliance on and prioritization of values are the log between the internal organizational environ-
main things that drive strategic thinking, where- ment and the external environment with
as the achievement of goals and the control of appropriate time for such interaction to take
actionable events drive strategic planning. place in some stable way (see Goldstein 1994;
Harman 1998). Such feedback is essential for a
4. Concentrate on the flow of information and continual assessment of the viability and integri-
the quality of relationships that emerge rather ty of the system. If information is freely available
than the control of information. By letting go of then honest assessments can be made and order
the control and prediction mentality of strategic can be maintained. The second activity is that

26 JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT & ORGANIZATION Volume 15, Issue 1, March 2009

Perspectives of strategic thinking: From controlling chaos to embracing it

leaders must focus on relationships. If informa- Three main ideas may help leaders think
tion is the lifeblood of organizations, then the strategically as they find comfort amid uncertain-
arteries and veins through which the information ty and use this ambiguity for the benefit of the
flow are relationships. The strategic thinker rec- organization and its people. First, leaders need to
ognizes that an organization differs from a mere put their heads above the flux and see the contra-
collection of individuals in that the parts have an dictions that are shaping organizational life even
influence on each other (Stumpf 1996). They while they are actively engaged in that organiza-
understand that people are the ‘parts’ of their tional life (Morgan 1998). Second, strategic
organization and that relationships among peo- thinkers understand the need for innovation but
ple are the essential building blocks of a flexible also recognize that innovation creates the seeds of
and sustainable organization. This demands the its own downfall by creating future areas of com-
development of trust, the third skill and activity petition and shaping the need for future innova-
to enhance self-organizing strategic thinking. For tion in response to the current innovative
leaders truly to lead (i.e., think strategically) they climate. As Morgan (1998: 252) describes it, an
need an environment characterized by mutual organization must be willing to ‘innovate in ways
trust within which the quality of relationships that will undermine current success so that new
and interpersonal interactions is harmonious and innovation can emerge.’ This concept suggests a
united (Fairholm & Fairholm 2000; Kouzes & fundamental idea that organizational equilibrium
Posner 1993). Such a culture provides both (the ultimate goals of planning) is undesirable in
leader and follower with a context in which each an uncertain world compared to progress and
can be free to trust the purposes, actions, and development. Third, strategic thinkers see all
intent of others and further the goals of the change (and innovation) as people change. People
organization. Culture (the natural catalyst and in positions of authority are adept at planning
result of strategic thinking), then, more than and executing organizational change plans. Gain-
structure (the goal of planning), may be the key ing an understanding of how people cope with
to solving organizational problems and the key change allows leaders to remain confident and
to creating new organizations that can cope with comfortable amid the various possible individual
the complexities of today’s organizations (see and organizational reactions. Thinking strategi-
Parry & Proctor-Thomson 2001). cally about individual and group transitions
allows leaders to cope with the uncertainties of
5. Learn to accept and work with ambiguity and organizational change and help followers place
the qualitative nature of organizations, rather the transitions (see Bridges 1991) they are expe-
than try to control and quantify all organiza- riencing in productive, rather than disruptive,
tional endeavors. Organizational theory is just contexts.
beginning to describe the powerful impact of
recognizing, not certainties and predictions, but Different strategic emphases aligned with dif-
preferences and principles (Gabriel 1998; Weis- ferent leadership perspectives. Strategic plan-
bord 1987). Trying to control what may be ning and strategic thinking have long been
inherently uncontrollable (people involved in assumed to be functions and responsibilities of
processes and organizations) is perhaps an orga- leadership. As has been discussed, there are, how-
nizational stance devoid of maturity and wis- ever, varying definitions and practices of strategic
dom. A comfort with ambiguity emerges as planning/thinking. Much of the differences in
leaders learn to ask the right questions – accept- strategy hinges on the relative emphasis given to
ing their limited perspective while seeking to controlling, guiding, or shaping the organiza-
gain a higher one. tional environment. Each perspective on strategy

Volume 15, Issue 1, March 2009 JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT & ORGANIZATION 27

Matthew R Fairholm and Michael Card

presupposes certain assumptions about the task Leadership as a Values Displacement Activity, defin-
of leadership. One way then to grapple with the ing leadership as a relationship between leader
differences (and similarities) between strategic and follower that allows for typical management
thinking and leadership is to uncover what cer- objectives to be achieved primarily via shared val-
tain perspectives of leadership emphasize in the ues, not merely direction and control. Leadership
‘strategic’ process. Fairholm (2004a) offers a clas- success is dependent more on values and shared
sification of five leadership perspectives culled vision than it is on organizational authority, and
from researching the practice of local govern- therefore, this perspective assumes the strategic
ment managers. Using the five perspectives of thinking involves prioritizing other people’s val-
leadership combined with specific assumptions ues so they support and implement organization-
of strategy, better links to potential activities of al goals. In this way it assumes strategic thinking
leadership emerge to help clarify this notion of is about influencing chaos (thus shaping how
strategic thinking in its many forms. Table 2 organizational actors participate) rather than try-
summarizes how the different strategic approach- ing to control it. The fourth perspective is Leader-
es, terms, perspectives of leadership, and types of ship in a Trust Culture, which emphasizes teams,
organizational work needed relate to each other. culture, and mutual trust between leader and fol-
The first leadership perspective is Leadership as lower which are the methods leaders use to insti-
(Scientific) Management wherein much emphasis tutionalize their values. The leader’s goal (and
is placed on managers understanding the one best related activity) is to encourage and maintain
way to promote and maintain productivity mutual trust so people act wisely and independ-
amongst the employee ranks. The underlying ently to achieve mutual goals, and so this perspec-
strategic assumption is strategic planning for effi- tive assumes a systems approach and focuses on
ciency, because organizations and their leaders embracing chaos – using it to create the environ-
need to control chaos so that predictable, verifi- ment to achieve desired ends. The last perspec-
able, and routinizable processes and outputs are tive is Whole Soul (Spiritual) Leadership, which
the norm. The second perspective is Leadership as assumes that people have only one ‘spirit’ that
Excellence Management, which assumes, like the manifests itself in both professional and personal
one above, that leaders should control chaos, but lives and that the activity of leadership engages
focus is rather on process improvement and individuals at this core level. Squarely in the non-
employee participation to assist in developing control camp, this perspective emphasizes strate-
strategic plans to control the organizational chaos gic thinking to develop the best in others so they
and disorder. This perspective emphasizes strate- lead themselves (and others) in appropriate direc-
gic planning to improve processes to enhance cus- tions to achieve appropriate ends. It is perhaps
tomer satisfaction. The third perspective is the ultimate manifestation of embracing the


Most Appropriate Control-Chaos Main Type

Approach Term Continuum Leadership Perspective Strategic Work

How Strategic Planning Control Chaos Scientific Management Technical

What-How Strategic Planning Control Chaos Excellence Management Technical
What-Why-How Strategic Planning Influence Chaos Values Leadership and/or Technical and
and/or Strategic Trust Cultural Leadership Philosophical
Why-What-How Strategic Thinking Embrace Chaos Trust Cultural Leadership
and/or Whole Soul Leadership Philosophical

28 JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT & ORGANIZATION Volume 15, Issue 1, March 2009

Perspectives of strategic thinking: From controlling chaos to embracing it

inherent order in apparent chaos in the strategic Birnbaum B (2004) Strategic thinking: A four piece
thinking approach. puzzle, Costa Mesa CA: Douglas Mountain.
Bridges W (1991) Managing transitions: Making the
most of change, New York: Addison Wesley.
CONCLUSION Fairholm MR (2004a) Different perspectives on the
Organizational effectiveness can only truly be con- practice of leadership, Public Administration
sidered if we focus on both quantitative measures Review 64(5): 577-590.
of success of actions properly linked to each other Fairholm MR (2004b) A new sciences outline for
to achieve important goals AND the qualitative leadership development, Leadership and Organiz-
ational Development Journal 25(4): 369-383.
measures inherent in the organization’s sense of
Fairholm MR (2004c) Values, vision, vector, and voice:
values, purpose, meaning, and vision. Strategic Distinguishing authentic leadership perspectives,
thinking and leadership takes place most impor- Paper presented at the UNL Gallup Leadership
tantly at the latter level and then works hard to Institute Summit, Omaha NE, June 10-12.
link the organizational soul to a body that is right- Fairholm MR and Fairholm G (2000) Leadership
ly fit together by organizational managers and amid the constraints of trust, Leadership and
Organizational Development Journal 21(2):
planners. Such recognition of different perspec- 102-109.
tives of strategy is essential for government man- Forrester J W (1971) The counterintuitive behavior
agers who have to deal with managing resources of social systems. Technology Review 73(3): 52–68.
and delivering services. It is essential, too, for gov- Frost PJ and Egri CJ (1990) Appreciating executive
ernment managers who see their profession as also action, in Srivastva S and Cooperrider DL (eds)
Appreciative management and leadership: The power
dealing with the strategic building of community.
of positive thought and action in organizations, pp.
289-323, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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