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Cultivate Strategic Thinking in Construction


By Jeremiah Hayes, Construction Executive

Construction has reached a critical milestone. Over the last 100 years, the pace of change has accelerated exponentially and is now faster than the capacity of organizations to retrieve, deploy and leverage a differentiating advantage for any significant amount of time. In the time it takes most companies to deploy an innovation, a newer one is already available to the market.

The cacophony of strategic choices available to the construction leader is staggering. To thrive in this increasingly dynamic environment, leadership’s focus must shift from building long-term strategic positions and defensible market policies. Today’s change strategies must incorporate constant adaptation and continuous creativity guided by a clear vision for the future of the organization if they are to succeed. If this transition is to occur, members at all levels of the organization must adopt strategic thinking as a core competency.


Strategic thinking is often confused with strategic planning. While these two processes are complementary, they are fundamentally different. Most leaders begin change initiatives by launching a strategic planning process. This process brings in key resources from various parts of the company to align with changes to the company’s policies or processes. A better approach is to adopt strategic thinking as the necessary predecessor to a strategic plan.

Strategic thinking is directional creativity. It is brainstorming with a framework. It is fundamentally imaginative but harnessed and guided by the governing values and overarching goals of the individual and organization. While there is a litany of definitions for strategic thinking, all agree on some basic components.

  1. Integrative: Strategic thinking considers the whole as well as the sum of the parts. It considers the organization as interactive systems instead of competing departments and divisions. It appreciates the complexity of the internal and external environment that is affecting the organization.
  2. Creative: Strategic thinking is better described using words such as novelty, new, innovative and unique. While remaining relevant to organizational priorities, its descriptors should avoid words such as linear, mechanical, established, best-practice comfortable.
  3. Open-Ended: Strategic thinking is divergent. It does not seek to answer questions but generates them. Effective strategic thinking begins by asking: What if? The convergent synthesis of ideas into an action plan is the arena of strategic planning, not thinking.
  4. Visionary: While still incorporating all the characteristics above, strategic thinking is contextual. It is informed (but not defined) by the past, translates the present and is motivated by the future.
  5. Continuous: While strategic planning usually results in a tangible document, strategic thinking is an ongoing process. If the strategic plan is the lake, strategic thinking is the stream that feeds it.

How does one cultivate strategic thinking for themselves and their team? First, leaders should accept strategic thinking as a core value. People do what they believe is important. Once someone is convinced that strategic thinking is necessary to excel and achieve one’s goals, they will be more apt to do it. Second, adopt the conviction that strategic thinking is a learned skill that can be honed and developed. The following practices provide some help in developing the discipline of strategic thinking.

Intentionality: Professing that one values creative thinking and intends to do it is important, but intention needs to be brought to completion with decision. Genuine intention can reliably expect to be followed by behavior. Barriers to sincere intention include procrastination, external circumstances and deeply rooted patterns of behavior that go against-the-grain of strategic thought. Carve out an afternoon dedicated to strategic thinking, schedule it on a calendar and set a reminder.

Environment: Choose an environment that is conducive to creativity. The modern world is designed to distract. Cell phone notifications are almost continuous, and it takes most people a concerted effort to turn off their email. Take note of those things that interrupt thought throughout the day and decide to remove distractions when thinking strategically.

Diversity: Leaders who surround themselves with a variety of perspectives and ideas are more comfortable engaging new ideas and entertaining new directions. Research bears out that diversity in an organization is connected with higher levels of creativity and includes a broader variety of talents which can be leveraged for new opportunities.

Teach It: Inviting and teaching strategic thinking at multiple levels of the organization will bear fruit in a number of ways. To do this, a critical look at the organizational culture and the organization’s reward system will go a long way in embedding strategic thinking in the organization’s fabric. The ultimate outcome, of course, is strategic behavior—action that is guided by wisdom and intentionality that improves the organization and community. Most organizations require more than a few strategic thinkers to create a sustainable competitive advantage. A large percentage of individuals at every level self-governing themselves and their circles of influence with strategic thought will yield unimaginable opportunities.


Being conscious of the common obstacles to strategic thinking will go a long way in promoting it.

High Stress
The effects of sustained, high-stress on an individual’s physiology have been well studied. Cognitive function, in particular, has been shown to be significantly reduced in people who are under high stress for long periods of time. While stress in this current global climate may be unavoidable, being intentional about reducing stress is a smart strategy to maximize the effect of strategic thinking.

Be Aware of External Factors
It is easy to become narrowly focused on business objectives, constraints and variables. However, becoming a student of the external environment is imperative to guiding wise organizational change. These external constraints will help spark the imagination and creativity necessary for effective strategic thinking while also avoiding an oversight that could undermine an otherwise brilliant idea.

Keep it Fresh
There is a danger, especially in today’s high-speed-low-drag competitive construction market, to save time by recycling old thoughts and plans. Thinking that leads to revolutionary change is rarely a reorganization of last year’s ideas. A new date-stamp does not a novelty make.

Be Humble
Good leaders surround themselves with good people. The mathematical reality is most great ideas will originate with others, be refined by others and implemented by others. The primary objective of a great leader in strategic thinking is stoking the fires of imagination in his/her organization, modeling the process, setting up appropriate boundaries, and participating in the chorus. Leaders who feel like they must own the next great idea to change the company will have a fraction of the impact.

The next couple of decades will redefine the construction industry. Automation, virtual environments, regulation and material science will rewrite what it looks like to run a successful construction company. Given the challenges and opportunities facing the construction industry in the years ahead, today’s firms must create the conditions in which strategic behaviors become automatic.

Strategic behavior is the result of a great strategic plan. A great strategic plan is the result of great strategic thinking. Become a leader who makes strategic thinking a habitual practice and serves as the springboard for all organizational change. This is what it will take to be a transformative leader in today’s and tomorrow’s construction industry.

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