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Leading in turbulent times

Business Leaders

Strategic thinking? It’s a brain of two halves  

12 February 2024 • by Tania Lennon in Leading in turbulent times

The theme of strategic thinking – and which factors drive sustained success in very volatile environments – comes up time and again in business leadership. But what exactly is strategic thinking? And...

The theme of strategic thinking – and which factors drive sustained success in very volatile environments – comes up time and again in business leadership. But what exactly is strategic thinking? And how can we cultivate the habit of strategic thinking so that leaders are equipped to address the ever-increasing demands they face?

What is strategic thinking?

Strategic thinking enables leaders to consider a multiplicity of complex perspectives and absorb information from a wide range of different sources to inform choices. There are two distinct schools of thought about what constitutes strategic thinking. One lens suggests that it requires imagination – the ability to consider what could happen and what is likely to happen through inference. The second lens on strategic thinking focuses on critical problem-solving, leveraging business insights and analysis to inform strategic choices and shape business plans to define what should happen.

‘If’ versus ‘then’: reconciling certainty and uncertainty

How can we make sense of both? One way is to map them to the two halves of the brain itself. The brain can take two very different approaches to addressing challenges. We can categorize these approaches as the ‘if’ brain and the ‘then’ brain. The ‘if’ brain is all about exploring possibilities and considering the environment around us from divergent and multiple perspectives. It is the side of our brain that is given over to thinking about what could be. In terms of strategic thinking, it’s where we would address such questions as, “What if we did this instead?” or “We can do this if these conditions are met.” This requires us to explore divergent scenarios to identify the possibilities – and it’s a key part of future-focused strategic thinking.

By contrast, the ‘then’ brain is all about certainty. It’s about control and locking things down. The ‘then’ brain concerns finding solutions and the way forward. Here the focus is on converging on plans – i.e., “Then we must do this.”

Both sides of the brain can be very active in the way that we engage with problems and diverse situations. They represent the two dominant cortical networks that perform different functions.

One of them, which is our default-mode network (DMN), is focused on learning, innovating, creating, and being open to new ideas. As such, it is focused on the future. This is the ‘if’ brain that considers the possibilities and looks ahead to what may result from them. By contrast, the other cortical network that is active in our brain is the task-positive network (TPN). This is the ‘then’ brain, focused on making decisions, controlling actions, and solving known problems to manage risk and create certainty.

What’s interesting about these two cortical networks is that they are antagonistic in the sense that they cannot operate at the same time – activity in the default-mode neural network inhibits activity in the task-positive network, so leaders can’t leverage both approaches to strategic thinking at the same time.

Practical applications

The brain’s configuration confirms the two lenses on strategic thinking: there are two different ways of looking at problems because they access different cortical networks. But turbulent times can reinforce the tendency to trigger the ‘then’ brain. Highly uncertain environments can prompt anxiety and a desire for certainty, while complexity and information overload can drive leaders to seek simplicity. As a result, leaders rely on the pathways that have been laid down over many years that prompt them toward certainty and risk reduction. There are both physiological and emotional reasons why the ‘then’ brain is the default position for most of us – we have a strong instinct to avoid risk and loss.

This means we have two opposing stimuli that may impact our strategic-thinking capability. On the one hand, our instinctive response to complexity and change means we are less likely to engage in ‘if’ thinking and more likely to use the ‘then’ side of our brain – yet, faced with a wealth of novel and complex problems, there’s never been a greater need for ‘if’-based thinking and a future-focused approach to strategic thinking. How can we find a way forward?

The four As of cultivating strategic thinking

When developing leaders across the talent pipeline, we can build the capability to encourage leaders to avoid following tried-and-trusted solutions and explore new solutions – and support them to switch more readily between the two cortical networks. 

strategic thinking
“We can build the capability to encourage leaders to avoid following tried-and-trusted solutions and explore new solutions.”

Through our IMD Future Ready assessments, we have identified four key capabilities that are crucial to developing the strategic thinking capabilities needed to succeed in turbulent times:

Acuity

This is the capacity to scan the horizon to draw on a broad range of information sources and synthesize insights to anticipate trends and events.

Agility

This is the ability to look at insights and information from multiple perspectives to ensure a robust consideration of the situation – including the ability to switch attentional modes.

Adaptability

Adaptability is the capacity to choose behaviors, strategies, and actions based on what is needed – guided by insight rather than by preference, habit, or other factors.

Audacity

Audacity is the courage to act and move ahead in the context of ambiguity and uncertainty, knowing that there is a risk of failure and that others are scrutinizing your choices.

Framing the problem

The way we frame the problem is also key. We are much more likely to be risk-seeking in a situation where we perceive the potential for gain versus where we perceive the potential for loss.

So, to foster effective strategic thinking, we need to encourage people to engage with the environment in a way that allows them space to explore possibilities in what psychologists call “psychological safety” and which does not inadvertently trigger loss aversion.

Leaders leveraging styles such as supporting, visioning, and coaching are more likely to trigger ‘if’ brain strategic thinking whereas a strong focus on defined goals, performance, and critical feedback is more likely to trigger ‘then’ style strategic thinking.

Environments that take people out of the day-to-day environment – whether off-site events or workspaces explicitly designed to support collaboration and playfulness – also encourage ‘if’ brain thinking.

Authors

tania lennon

Tania Lennon

Executive Director of the Strategic Talent Development initiative

Tania Lennon leads the Strategic Talent team for IMD. She is an expert on future-ready talent development, including innovative assessment methods to maximize the impact of talent development on individual and organizational performance. Lennon is a “pracademic”, blending a strong research orientation with evidence-based practice in talent development and assessment.

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