You’ve likely noticed during your daily encounters with bosses, colleagues, direct reports, customers, suppliers, and other individuals that strategic thinking comes in varying degrees, ranging from brilliant to nonexistent. To help you refine your idea of strategic thinking, I have taken the results of research I conducted among senior managers from 154 companies and have identified four types of strategic thinkers. These will help you better understand how to think strategically and will give you insight into individuals in your organization. Two criteria to consider as you evaluate an individual’s ability to provide strategic insight are what I call the “Impact of Insights” and the “Frequency of Insights.”

I use the analogy of underwater diving to explain the types of strategic thinkers I’ve researched. Just as there are four types of divers, so too are there four types of strategic thinkers.

1. Beach Bums: They sit on the shore and make no attempt to enter the water. This type of manager doesn’t contribute insight into the business. The research shows, on average, that 9 percent of managers are Beach Bums.

2. Snorkelers: They swim on the surface of the water, equipped with a diving mask and swim fins. This type of manager offers tactical solutions to issues, but the solutions don’t have a significant positive impact on the business. As the name indicates, they tend to do surface thinking and seldom get to the heart of an issue. Research indicates, on average, that 26 percent of managers are Snorkelers.

3. Scuba Divers: They swim underwater wearing a diving mask, swim fins, a wetsuit, and a portable apparatus containing compressed air. This type of manager can produce strategic insights for solutions but requires instruction and assistance to do so. These managers can provide ideas that advance the overall success of the business, but they need a setting such as a group strategic planning meeting to contribute. When these managers are thoroughly prepared with the proper data and market research prior to a meeting, and are then led through the meeting with frameworks and models, they can generate highly effective insights. However, because they generate insights only when heavily equipped, the insights are infrequent and tend to occur only in a meeting environment. Study results show, on average, that 32 percent of managers can be classified as Scuba Divers.

4. Free Divers: They dive underwater without the assistance of a portable breathing apparatus in an attempt to attain great depths. This is the type of strategic thinker leaders aspire to be. These managers generate effective insights about the business on a regular basis. Although they use a customary portfolio of questions, frameworks, and models to guide their thinking, they are able to summon the appropriate tool and combine it with the right data to continually generate insights that transform the business. The research indicates that, on average, only three of every ten managers are Free Divers.

At first blush, it would appear that the only things standing in a manager’s way of becoming a Free Diver are adequate knowledge and mental models to think strategically on a regular basis. While these do account for a large portion of the cases, a subtler reason also exists. Strategic thinking, and the actions taken to follow through on it, requires an appetite for risk. Strategy calls for focus and the trade-offs that inherently follow, but many managers decide they would rather play it safe. In most organizations, sins of commission—taking a risk and failing—are punished much more harshly than sins of omission—not taking a risk and missing out on a great opportunity. With both political (your reputation within the company) and career (not wanting to jeopardize your next promotion) ramifications to consider, many managers consciously opt out of strategic thinking. And that is a shame. As Roberto Goizueta, the successful former CEO of Coca-Cola, points out: “If you take risks, you may still fail. If you do not take risks, you will surely fail. The greatest risk of all is to do nothing.”

Consider your group: what percentage are beach bums and what percentage are truly strategic thinkers?

*This post is based on content from the book, Deep Dive: The Proven Method for Building Strategy which can be referenced for further information.

Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 11.19.40 AM

Back to Blog