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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Strategic Thinking

I've been thinking (and writing) lots about thinking: thinking as symbolic; thinking as categorizing, thinking as analogy; thinking as model making; thinking as the mode of having a self in a world of space and time; thinking as language, art, religion, science, economics, philosophy, and politics; thinking as critical; and thinking as delightful.

I think that thinking (or not!) is the source of good and evil. It is Eve's rebellion and Pandora's out-of-the-box curiosity. Thinking is both the risk and hope of human existence, meaning, power, and freedom.

Now I want to think about thinking strategically.

As community organizers we were taught not to confuse tactics with strategy. That distinction goes back to Sun Tsu (Art of War) and taken up again by Carl von Clausewitz (On War) who said "tactics is the art of using troops in battle; strategy is the art of using battles to win the war." As we know in chess, war, and business, we can win a battle and still lose the war. And often the winning of a battle contributes to the losing of a war. One of the arts of warfare is to get an adversary to focus on the movement of troops to a certain battle while being ignorant of the overall strategy. A battle might be won in a way that depletes the troops or might be lost as a way to position more troops for a more decisive battle.

The Russian army used retreat strategically against Napoleon and Hitler. On the other hand timid Union General McClellen did not use a decisive victory to pursue the Confederate armies and shorten the war. He focused on the battle, not winning the war.

Of course hindsight is easier than foresight. But then hindsight might help inform foresight.

We community organizers often got entranced with a sexy tactic to call attention to our issue yet didn't get the people who could make a difference to the bargaining table. I remember in Cleveland when a group of organizers and a few neighborhood people showed up to protest at an exclusive lunch club and wound up alienating their supporters and even the people for whom they were working. I remember in Chicago when the Hippies "brought the war home" to Chicago by throwing rocks through bank windows mystifying the working poor black folk with whom I was working and who thought the rock-throwers were crazy.

It was US tactics that lost the War in Vietnam for America, e.g. My Lai genocide, destruction of crops through agent orange, napalm bombing of villages, and other acts of terror disgusted the American people who thought they were the good guys. Also no one could articulate a reason for the war or how Vietnam was strategic (except by using the unexamined metaphor of falling dominoes). If you read The Brothers, by Stephen Kinzer, about Avery and John Foster Dulles you will see how tactics not strategy led to the fall out in South East Asia, Latin America, and the Mid-East that we experience today. The strategy with the Soviet was containment and worked. But the Dulles adventures were counter-productive and alienated the populace of the countries they were saving from communism.

Reaction by definition is not thought out and consists of tactics without strategy. Indeed Saul Alinsky would count on that with those in power: "the action is in the reaction," he said. And the reaction weakens the reactors. Al Qaeda knew that with 9-11 and the Bush 2 administration fell for it. Instead of treating the bombing of the towers as the crime it was, they made it an act of war, first with Afghanistan and then Iraq breaking the containment strategy of both the Bush 1 and Clinton administrations.

Actions out of vengeance are seldom strategic and usually lead to terrible consequences, as did the exaction of Germany's pound of flesh after World War I. The so called war on crime used three strikes, extended jail terms, and compulsory sentencing as tactics without a strategy and the war was lost. The same for the war on drugs that has cost trillions of dollars and thousands of lives to North and Latin American people. The well-intentioned war on demon liquor had terrible unforeseen consequences but was self-corrected.

Strategic thinking develops a positive, broad based vision, clear objectives, and activities to achieve them with the consequences, including the side effects, well considered. Moreover it is not centered on winning victories unless they advance the movement and organization towards the long term goal.

Community actions, popular movements, and revolutions fail if they do not unite the citizenry and build a stable state. I remember my organizing mentor always asking when we won a victory, say, over a polluting industry: "but did you build the organization?" What good is a win if the people of the community did not have more power through organization?

When I searched for strategic thinking on the website of the business consulting firm McKinsey and Co., I found 72 pages with 2324 entries. Clearly strategic thinking is one of the most important success factors for an organization. In all these entries there are many different tools, styles, frameworks, and counsels for strategic thinking, planning, and management.

For McKinsey strategy for business builds on financial, forecast, and externally oriented planning. They define strategy as an "integrated set of actions designed to create a sustainable advantage over the competition." Of course, I am thinking about strategic thinking for more than war or business.

The definition that works for me is an integrated set of actions designed to achieve goals that will accomplish a concrete vision (e.g. create and sustain a diverse, inclusive, exciting neighborhood where people want to invest time, talent, and treasure; or create stability based on fairness and opportunity for residents in the Middle East).

The important concepts in the definition are integrated, set of actions, designed, concrete vision. Some of the key elements and characteristics of strategic thinking I found in the McKinsey articles are:

  • clear understanding of the business of the group or organization.
  • hard, fact-based logical information related to external opportunities, obstacles, opposition and internal capacities.
  • recognition and consideration of uncertainties.
  • questioning of all assumptions. 
  • generation (not depletion) of resources.
  • indirect long-term approach that disrupts the conventional way of doing things.
  • participative process where creative ideas can be generated, biases understood, diverse viewpoints are present, and there is buy-in by those who will be responsible for implementation.
  • model (designed integrated set of actions) with a layout of consequences and side-effects chosen from alternatives. 
  • assessment of what's needed to carry out the chosen model and direction.
  • agreement on specific next steps with a testing period.

Strategic thinking is a habit of good organizers and leaders. This means they know what they want, consider context limitations and trends, position for the long term, look down the line beyond the next tasks, anticipate change, and self-correct.

Critical thinking if strategic disrupts conventional, convenient thinking that holds us back from higher consciousness and greater empathy.  The latest court decisions about same sex marriage and universal health coverage, the latest papal encyclical on an economy out of sync with nature, the the response of both acceptance of racism and forgiveness to the execution of black churchgoers challenges our prevalent morality of exclusion, exceptionalism, and righteousness. Thinking critically and strategically will open us to a freer, more inclusive, and less reactionary morality.  It opens us to a desired future while acknowledging the garbage and gifts of the past.

Critical, strategic thinking is our vocation. Our way to transcend ourselves. Our way to love, power, and freedom. This capacity, which we now know evolved over millions of years through many stages and is still developing, is the "divine spark within" lit by a complex interaction of many selected and inherited genes and fanned by the interaction of memes in culture.

The new ethics we search for in these reflections is indeed critical thinking about our morality, our conventional thinking and behavior.

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