The Lost Art of Thinking in Large Organizations

Many executives in big companies attained their positions by excelling at getting things done. Unfortunately, a bias for doing rather than thinking can leave these executives ill-equipped for their new roles.

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If you ask managers in a large organization to approach a strategic business problem, their focus often quickly narrows to proposing solutions. When asked why, many respond that they don’t have time to think.

How did we arrive in a state where managers do not recognize that thinking is part of their job? The answer reflects a relentless focus on execution in many large companies. A company becomes big by finding a successful business model — and then scaling it massively. This necessitates building a finely tuned system with highly standardized processes. To get promoted in such an environment requires an almost singular focus on execution. In other words, it requires action more than thinking. However, once executives are promoted to a senior level, these new business leaders must be able to think strategically. Ironically, the very skills in execution that led to their promotions often make these executives ill-equipped for their new roles, since their strategy thinking muscles have withered from disuse.

How to Find Strategic Insights

The goal of strategic thinking is to find strategic insights. Strategy is all about choices — about which markets to compete in and which markets to avoid. Strategic insights describe the boundaries separating attractive markets from unattractive markets. For example, Inc. had the strategic insight that it could marry its investment in computing infrastructure with its unparalleled e-commerce capabilities to develop an attractive new business offering cloud computing services, Amazon Web Services.

Although strategy is about the big picture, strategic thinking often starts in the weeds. To think about strategy, start with a specific customer example (a “use case”) and ask: How can we make money from this customer? Now change an assumption and see whether the answer changes. This is what good thinking involves: evaluating hypotheticals and pivoting from one hypothetical to another. At this stage, you are not looking for the best solution. What you are looking for are the boundaries that identify where your company can compete effectively (and where it cannot).

Does starting with narrow examples mean you risk not exhausting every possibility? That is more than a risk; it is a certainty. An exhaustive search is not your goal in strategic thinking. Instead, good strategic thinking sacrifices breadth for depth. Functional managers transitioning to become senior leaders must learn to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty. They will struggle to progress if they try to validate every assumption. A high-performing strategic team recognizes uncertainty — and progresses despite it.

How Do Leaders Find Time to Think?

Delegation is the key to finding time to think. When I work with managers from large organizations, I make the programs nine to ten weeks long — long enough to force them to delegate. This is often the first time they have delegated in such a substantive way. At the end of the program, many are surprised to discover how well their teams performed without them and vow to keep delegating more — freeing up time to think, while their teams delight in their new responsibilities. These executives are transitioning from being mere managers facilitating execution to becoming strategic leaders who spend time thinking carefully about how best to deploy their teams.

Who Should Think About Strategy?

Realistically, not all employees need to engage in strategic thinking (although that would be nice). This question of who in an organization should be thinking about strategy can be reframed as: Who is responsible for strategy? In a startup or small company we look upward for strategy. The danger is that as companies scale, we continue to look up to the company’s most senior leaders for strategic direction. Yet, as the organization grows, these senior leaders can become distant from the details of the business and emerging trends affecting it — and that can hinder their ability to make the best strategic decisions.

Bill Gates, cofounder and former CEO and chairman of Microsoft Corp., countered this challenge effectively through a technique he called “Think Week.” While leading Microsoft, Gates would go on a secluded retreat twice a year; during that time, he would immerse himself in reading and thinking about technology trends affecting Microsoft’s business. Because his “Think Week” reading material included reports written by Microsoft employees all over the world, this practice allowed Gates to glean strategic insights from developments employees were seeing in the marketplace. “It’s the world’s coolest suggestion box,” one Microsoft manager told The Wall Street Journal in 2005.

Busy as he was as a senior Microsoft executive, Bill Gates made sure to set aside time to think. If your managers claim they do not have time to think, you have a problem. You need them to know not just that they have permission to take time away from doing to think — but that they are required to do so. You must also help rebuild their withered strategic thinking muscles.

The threat of not doing so is clear. While you may be executing well in your core business, companies that prioritize doing at the expense of thinking are not well-positioned to identify new markets or pivot to new opportunities when their core business matures. In other words, a singular focus on what made your company big risks preventing it from sustaining that growth in the future.


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Comments (7)
In response to your question, MIT SMR did publish a paper on East Asian leadership recently. You can find it here. I hope you find this of interest.
Tonda Priyanto
I have experience in running leadership development unit in a big SOE and having exposed by western leadership development provider and yes, i feel the mentioned gaps which then I felt becoming not really effective in the development. Unfortunately, reference on eastern leadership is limited. I was wondering if there are some papers on East Asia leadership. Having these both understanding may improve far East Asia leadership development.
jose fernandes santiago
Most people when promoted take a significant chunk of theirnold job with them. They need something to do on day one, this is repeated from the firstbpromotion to the last. A few o jectives and a strategy map encourage súbito act and not think about the role the needs the demands and the outcomes, it's more about i will succeed, i have to achieve, be competitive or better, etc., these hardly make for unbiased and clear strategic thinking. 
The paradigm is shifting and management and leadership models are changing especially from Asia and the developing world, let us see where we are in ten or so years time!
jose fernandes santiago
Hi Enjoyed your comments Murthy, however, like breathing thinking is not always conscious thinking, thus we need to learn it, and generally no one is taught this either in school or college/university and certainly not in work. We are profoundly biased to action its built cinto our biology, we are also biased by many other  things which cloud our doing and unless we are conscious, today we like the word mindful, for this , but it's essentially the same, we are not aware just like our breathing.
All people with few exceptions have difficulty thinking, it requires a great dealmofneffort and will to stay focused in this state and do use it on a regular basis. How donee get executives and managers to do this when we are pressed to act, react, respond instantly? Of course algorythims will solve this for humanity, ignore the built in bias for now, how then will we as people think? unconsciously, kind of idv in your view... not sure we want this, thus i encourage all to learn to think and question which goes with thinking and engage in socratic conversations to clarify and develop this thinking process.
Murthy CNSK
1.	The article says rightly, “delegation is the key to finding time to think.”  Even after elevation to a senior level position, some managers may feel insecure to delegate and may hesitate to delegate; or they may entertain wrong notion that delegation would weaken their own status or position. But, it is our duty to develop second line of management.  We need to ask ourselves, did we develop our respective 2nd line of management. If not done, we need to, in our own interest.

2.	OK, you delegated. You got free time on hand now. What is that you want to do with that time? What thinking you want to carry on with?  Explaining Habit 3 “Put first things first”, Stephen R Covey in his famous book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” says, “In Habit 3 we are dealing with many of the questions addressed in the field of life and time management. As a longtime student of this fascinating field, I am personally persuaded that the essence of the best thinking in the area of time management can be captured in a single phrase: Organize and execute around priorities.” 

And he goes on to present the time management matrix containing 4 quadrants:
Quadrant I – Urgent and Important
Quadrant II – Not Urgent and Important
Quadrant III – Urgent but not important
Quadrant IV – Not Urgent and Not Important

Stephen Covey says, generally we get bogged down 90% of our time with activities in First Quadrant, “Urgent and Important” and as an escape, we spend remaining 10% of time in activities in Fourth Quadrant, “Not Urgent and Not Important”. 

This is the essence of what he says: 
“Effective people stay out of Quadrants II and IV because, urgent or not, they aren’t important.  They also shrink Quadrant I down to size by spending more time in Quadrant II.

“Quadrant II is the heart of effective personal management.  It deals with things that are not urgent, but are important. It deals with things like building relationships, writing a personal mission statement, long-range planning, exercising, preventive maintenance, preparation—all those things we know we need to do, but somehow seldom get around to doing, because they aren’t urgent. 

“To paraphrase Peter Drucker, effective people are not problem-minded; they’re opportunity-minded.  They feed opportunities and starve problems. They think preventively.  They have genuine Quadrant I crises and emergencies that require their immediate attention, but the number is comparatively small.  They keep P and PC in balance by focusing on the important, but not urgent, high leverage capacity-building activities of Quadrant II.”

The P and PC above refers to, in Stephen Covey’s own words, “Effectiveness lies in the balance—what I call the P/PC Balance. P stands for production of desired results, the golden eggs. PC stands for production capability, the ability or asset that produces the golden eggs.”

He poses the question, “if you were to do one thing in your professional work that you know would have enormously positive effects on the results, what would it be?” and points out that the answer lies in the activities you identify under Quadrant II. 

It is high time we review our own time management patterns, and take steps to ensure we manage to devote more time consciously to activities identified under Quadrant II.  

3.	We need conscious effort to devote some time for critical and creative thinking. We can do this by devoting personal time for this – at a time of our choice and convenience but bringing in regularity and consistency is the key to achieve meaningful success. Or at an organizational or functional level, best method is by organizing a group meeting of the leaders to meet for a day or two to come together to think, to analyze, to deliberate, to recognize problems and to think about the solutions, to do forward planning and do strategic thinking.

4.	If any one were to say to us that we forgot how to walk and that we should learn how to walk, we are apt to laugh and ignore that comment for sure.

If someone says to us, ‘you are not breathing properly, you are taking shallow and short breaths, you should consider taking deep breath and that is the healthier way,’ we may willingly or hesitantly consider the suggestion and try to take deep breath. 

But mind you, both walking and breathing are natural things that we do all the time!

The author Duncan Simester in this article says that we have “bias for doing rather than thinking” and that “managers do not recognize that thinking is part of their job.”  

Seriously?  I beg to differ.

With due respect to the author, I submit, this article ignores certain basic elements of thinking and makes certain false assumptions.

a.	Thinking is an integral part of our functioning. 
You are driving a car. But at the same time, you may be making or answering phone calls, or talking to those in the car travelling with you. Can you say that you are driving the car without thinking? Even when you are talking, if there comes a need to apply a sudden break or swerve to right or left, you do it effortlessly – yes, you had bias for doing, but that action of doing is preceded by thinking for sure. Don’t you agree? As a business leader, when did you stop thinking?  For that matter, when did you decide that thinking is NOT part of your job?  The answer is, no, you did not.

My humble suggestion and request is this: let us be realistic and let us not be harsh on ourselves assuming that we are NOT thinking and that we have bias only for doing;  let us not berate ourselves that we consider thinking is NOT part of our job. That is NOT true.

b.	Paralysis by Analysis.   
“Once executives are promoted to a senior level, these new business leaders must be able to think strategically,” says the author.  The emphasis to think is obviously at the senior level business leaders as per this article.   What good is thinking if not carried out into action? The assumption here appears to be that ‘strategic thinking’ is done at the senior level business leaders and action is carried out at lower levels. 

Too much of thinking can equally be detrimental and can result in what is called as ‘analysis by paralysis’ -- irrespective of the level where thinking is needed. 
Consider this Wiki entry:
"Analysis paralysis or paralysis by analysis is the state of over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome. A decision can be treated as over-complicated, with too many detailed options, so that a choice is never made, rather than try something and change if a major problem arises. A person might be seeking the optimal or "perfect" solution upfront, and fear making any decision which could lead to erroneous results, while on the way to a better solution.

"The phrase describes a situation in which the opportunity cost of decision analysis exceeds the benefits that could be gained by enacting some decision, or an informal or non-deterministic situation where the sheer quantity of analysis overwhelms the decision-making process itself, thus preventing a decision. The phrase applies to any situation where analysis may be applied to help make a decision and may be a dysfunctional element of organizational behavior. This is often phrased as paralysis by analysis, in contrast to extinct by instinct (making a fatal decision based on hasty judgment or a gut-reaction). "

This again brings to the fore the need to consider thinking to a reasonable limit and the need for action.  Thinking without action can make you a Buddha and can lead you to Nirvana. If you want results, think but then we need to go and DO.  Or give orders and get others to do. But in the end, it is action that counts and brings results and not just thinking. Only thinking without need for any action is beyond the realm of this physical world. 

The article rightly clarifies:  “An exhaustive search is not your goal in strategic thinking. Instead, good strategic thinking sacrifices breadth for depth. Functional managers transitioning to become senior leaders must learn to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty. They will struggle to progress if they try to validate every assumption. A high-performing strategic team recognizes uncertainty — and progresses despite it.”

c.	We rise to the occasion. 
Duncan says, “….once executives are promoted to a senior level, these new business leaders must be able to think strategically. Ironically, the very skills in execution that led to their promotions often make these executives ill-equipped for their new roles, since their strategy thinking muscles have withered from disuse.” 

This is NOT how humans work. We may have bias to doing – but when put in a leadership position we rise to the occasion and we meet the demands of the job we are thrust into. You would have in all probability seen this in your own organization. The reality is that it is in the human nature that when the situation demands, we rise to the occasion, we adapt, we learn and grow and do what is required of our role.

d.	Thinking is required at all levels
The article posing a question, “Who should think about strategy?” says, “Realistically, not all employees need to engage in strategic thinking (although that would be nice).”

Any organization’s strength lies in the experience gained working with its customers. It is your rank and file employees who work with your customers, customers’ business units and customers’ business leaders day in and day out. The enormous amount of domain expertise that your employees gain by so working closely inside your customers’ business, can really help your employees to gain insights into the workings of your customers’ business and thereby, they can think, analyze and understand the problems that the customers face and come up with solutions.

It is our job to instill in our workforce the habit of creative thinking, seeing the big picture while working with the customers, identify the pain points, think of solutions and come up with proactive ideas of help to the customers. This way either we would be in a position to offer a bespoke solution to a given pain point of a customer, OR, can lead to developing a solution/idea that can be – complying with proper legitimate IPR requirements – developed into a non-linear solution offering to a larger base of customers and prospects.
In 1946 Ross Ashby coined the Law of Requisite Variety (LRV) and from 1959/82 in "Cybernetic & Management, Heart of Enterprise" Stafford Beer included such in the Viable System Model (VSM). Both a sincerely misunderstood in management terms because your article addresses the one thing Ashby sought to manage "variety".

Any/all organisation(s) cannot cover the variety of events that possibly face them and so they must choose which are more important. However this also includes keeping a weathered eye on what events may possibly arise as markets change: Your point I think?

The misunderstanding of the LRV and its application in the VSM arises from the fact that the latter is dynamic and probabilistic model NOT deterministic linked to set processes. It is a functional model within which the LRV operates at many levels to manage cyclicality/dampening effects. These include the type of thinking management can exhibit in your article.

It's a pity the full model, with its flaws, isn't better understood.
Patrick Lamey
Two companies I worked for before I retired were the extremes of this behavior. Both were segment leading billion dollar Semiconductor Capital Equipment companies with  virally no competitive  overlap and serving the identical customer base. Company 1 measured success by how fast (multiple) attempts were executed to serve a customer's need and they prided themselves as fast followers. Company 2 prized well defined (aka thoughtful) approaches to serve the customer. Both dominated in their respective niches. At one point, Company 1 decided to compete against Company 2. When they entered the segment, I joined Company 1 after a long stint at Company 2  both in strategic roles. Observations:  The action oriented company 1 never gained market share in established niches. The thoughtful company 2 was always a step ahead blocking their "fast following" strategy by making them appear to be flailing. In new niches Company 1 dominated as the customers saw this action oriented approach as being in sync with their own struggles. And, as a strategic oriented executive, I was initially appalled at the fast follower logic (and the wasted investment) until I understood where and when it fit the market opportunity.