Strategic thinking: What is, characteristics, types, elements, examples and techniques of the strategic approach

  • By:karen-millen



Strategic thinking, also known as strategic focus, is a faculty of thinking that involves systematic, creative reasoning about different futures and ways to achieve them. Strategic thinking is essential to achieve goals, both personal and organizational. However, to understand this, the main thing is to clarify what strategic thinking is, its origin and characteristics.Strategic Thinking: what it is, characteristics, types, elements, examples and techniques of the strategic approach Strategic Thinking: what it is, characteristics, types, elements, examples and techniques of the strategic approach

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What is strategic thinking?

Strategic thinking, commonly confused with strategic planning approaches, consists of a faculty or way of thinking that may or may not be present in individuals and organizations . Hence, it is also called strategic capacity or strategic faculty.

According to Olga Román Muñoz, business administrator and specialist in Senior Management, strategic thinking generally consists of a “particular way of thinking that requires a systemic approach, capacity for synthesis, intuitive intelligence and creativity in order to visualize a future and articulate the way to reach it”.

This section presents other definitions of strategic thinking, its purpose, importance and the most frequent fields of application. The explanations about what strategic thinking is are essential to understand the subsequent sections.

Definitions of strategic thinking

With a concept of strategic thinking similar to that of Román Muñoz, Arellano believes that strategic thinking is a “form of thinking that is directed towards creativity, imagination, the search of innovative alternatives; but with realism, as empowerment of the possible framed within a project of intentional construction of reality”.

Others, like Horacio Krell, share another definition of strategic thinking consisting of: “the art of ordering knowledge and resources to overcome that traditional difference that exists between the plan and the result”. In addition, Román points out, strategic thinking in companies must be understood as "the coordination of creative minds within a common perspective."

In summary, strategic thinking according to authors can be considered as an individual or collective quality that allows both a group and a person to advance towards a satisfactory future by considering the environment, situations, resources and existing alternatives. In this way, it is clear what strategic thinking is, and it is necessary to clarify its purpose and importance.

Henry Mintzberg

Although he is not exactly a definer of strategic thinking, but rather a representative of strategic planning, Mintzberg includes strategic reflection in his business management approaches. Likewise, Mintzberg is the main student of the main currents of strategic thought.

Michael E. Porter

On the other hand, Porter was one of those responsible for consolidating the existing marriage between military strategic thinking and strategic thinking applied to business, although he took more precisely as reference the industrial sector. Porter is also a major in strategic thinking and has been the primary developer of tools such as Porter's 5 Forces.

Purpose of strategic thinking

Understood as a faculty, strategic thinking has accompanied human beings practically since its origin. Men and women have always had to direct their energies and resources towards the fulfillment of objectives, and they have had to do it in the most efficient way possible to guarantee their survival and maximize their well-being.

In this sense, strategic thinking has maintained its purpose of guiding and helping to recognize the environment. In the latter, the needs that have to be resolved through a deliberate effort are inserted or “installed”. Strategic thinking, together with a proactive and creative attitude, allows you to face this company.

In addition, according to Román Muñoz, strategic thinking makes it possible to exploit the many future challenges, both foreseeable and unforeseeable (...) since strategic thinking is the field for planning the future without hindering practical utilities”.

Importance of Strategic Thinking

Talking about the importance of strategic thinking is a different matter than talking about its purpose. Although the latter consists of guiding groups and individuals in the pursuit of their objectives, strategic thinking is important because it provides an optimal solution in said guiding task by combining rational analysis together with intuitive and imaginative components.

Another way of understanding this point is to point out that strategic thinking is distinguished from both traditional (linear) thinking and merely imaginative thinking. In this sense, this type of thinking escapes the risks of excessively normative thinking and a merely utopian thinking that does not consider the real means to achieve it.

Scopes of application

Historically, which will be seen in the next section, strategic thinking originated on the battlefield, both in antiquity and during the Renaissance and the Modern Age, strategic thinking Strategic is mainly applied in the business world.

In fact, in the so-called Business Schools, the history of strategic thinking is usually taught starting from its military origin, looking for analogies between the war academies and the new business academies.

However, strategic thinking can also be applied in everyday life. As it is a quality or faculty, there is no obstacle that prevents the application of its principles in personal life. Therefore, all its advantages and potentialities can be extracted to achieve personal objectives, including life goals.

Origins of strategic thinking

Strategic thinking has its origins in moments in history as far back as the 5th and 4th centuries BC. The so-called "Athens of Pericles" was the main historical context of relevance for strategic thinking, followed by the Roman Empire with men of the stature of Cicero.

Subsequently, tactical and strategic thought had a renaissance during the Modern Age and became popular after the military deed of Napoleon Bonaparte. Among the men that the latter defeated militarily, Claude Von Klausewitz and one of the Prussian officers trained at his military academies, Von Morkel, stood out. These last men finished outlining the development of strategic thinking and its characteristics that it currently presents.

Athens: Rhetoric and Strategy

Diverse contemporary authors share the idea that a strategy that cannot be described cannot be carried out. Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton, creators of the Balanced Scorecard (BSC) and Strategy Maps tools share this opinion.

However, this knowledge is as distant as the ideas of Pericles. This famous Athenian orator, politician and general was a great cultivator of rhetoric (word art) and established the most elementary principles of strategic thinking: First, it is important to have an end in mind, or in other words, it is important Be clear about what you want to achieve, for what reason and for what purpose.

Pericles also helped to clarify another principle of strategic thinking: it is not only important to know what has to be done, it is also essential to know how to explain it to others, to convince others, through the art of the word. Hence, rhetoric is closely linked to the origin of strategic thinking and its real effectiveness.

Rome: Prudence and Strategy

Another of the peak moments in the history of strategic thought was the moment in which the virtue of prudence was recognized as an essential quality for a good strategist. Prudence, generally represented with a beautiful woman looking in the mirror, implies knowing how to look at the now, the past and the future. The prudent person is not the one who stops acting, but the one who does it for his own good, based on the analysis of the circumstances and the accumulated experience.

Napoleonic Wars: Speed ​​and Strategy

In 1770, the General Essay on Tactics was published anonymously, the actual authorship of which corresponds to Count Guibert. This work had a great impact on the formation of the French National Army. Likewise, the Defense on the modern war system, was also an influential work. These works began the filtering of the military concept of "strategy" among the various strata of society.

This book sought to answer how an army, apparently unqualified, like Napoleon's armies, could face and break imperial coalitions with curious ease. During these years it was discovered that speed is the key to reaching military objectives, which is why modern supply techniques were decisive in the victory of the revolutionaries over the monarchy.

The principle of speed, present since antiquity, is an important part of strategic thinking since, as Pericles suggested, you not only have to know what to do and know how to convince, you also have to know how to react at the right moment. These ideas were also suggested by Carl von Clausewitz, who introduced among many other concepts, the concept of "lightning war" (blitzkrieg).

Prussia: The Birth of the Plan

Strategic thinking: what it is, characteristics, types, elements, examples and techniques of the strategic approach

Finally, another Prussian soldier was Helmuth von Moltke, an admirer of Clausewitz, who recognized (like Napoleon) the importance of movement as a variable to consider in the art of war. In his work "The Art of War" he recognized the importance of rivers and railways in battle, and introduced the notion of plan as a projection or simulation to guarantee greater speed of action.

Although these points are debatable, it can be affirmed that with these historical moments the basic principles of strategic thinking are outlined. These principles are: description, relevance, speed and planning thinking.

This is because thinking strategically consists of knowing how to choose an optimal option after having considered previous experience and the objective to be achieved with its implementation. This episode partially closes the evolution of strategic thinking as an integral part of the development of the history of humanity. Subsequently, strategic thinking would merge with organizational thinking typical of the business world.

Characteristics of strategic thinking

Based on the historical overview presented in the previous section, there are a number of characteristics of strategic thinking that can be identified as essential to it. These elements of strategic thinking are: proactivity, analytical aptitude, intellectual autonomy, abstraction capacity, curiosity and flexibility.


Strategic thinking takes precedence over linear thinking in the sense that it does not focus on the “ought to be” but on the “can be”. However, the strategic mindset is also characterized by proactivity. This is because of which part of the assumption that human beings must act deliberately to get the best possible conditions out of what can be, given their resources, objective thinking, and capabilities.

Analytical aptitude

Secondly, we can talk about the analytical aptitude of the strategist. Strategic thinking requires the ability to break down problems into their parts for greater understanding. It is important that the analyst be able to apply analytical thinking in depth to the problems he aspires to answer or, failing that, know how to surround himself with people who are trained to carry out this way of thinking.

Intellectual autonomy

Similarly, just as strategic knowledge can aid evaluative and analytical thinking, factors such as intuition, imagination, and creativity are essential for a strategist. In this sense, intellectual autonomy, the ability to "get out of the box" is an important quality of strategic thinking, precisely because it escapes the forms of normative thought.

Abstraction capacity

Related to analytical aptitude is the abstraction capacity. This has to do with the ability to handle concepts, ideas, projections in a high degree of abstraction. Of course it has to do with analysis, but more specifically with synthesis: with the ability to reconstruct what has been recomposed, obtaining new advantages and knowledge. This skill can be considered as a strategic skill or element of strategic thinking.


Intellectual autonomy is related to curiosity, which is typical of strategic thinking since “stepping outside the box” is usually related to going further. In this sense, "going further" means inquiring more than the obvious, asking why?, for what?, how? In this way, curiosity is inherent to strategic thinking.


Finally, strategic thinking is not “me-oriented”, that is, closed in on itself. Rather, the strategist considers the most possible points of view on the same issue, so that he can find unexpected solutions to pressing problems. Flexibility, therefore, is important to the way of thinking that is considered strategic.

Types of strategic thinking

Hentry MIntzberg, an important representative of strategic planning (not to be confused with strategic thinking itself) recognized the existence of at least ten schools of strategic thought or different types of strategic thinking. She grouped the schools into two main large groups: prescriptive schools and descriptive schools.

Prescriptive Schools

Among the prescriptive schools of strategic thought are three of the ten schools recognized by Mintzberg. These correspond to: the design school, the planning school and the positioning school.

Design school

In the systematization of strategic thinking, the design school played a fundamental role in providing a basic frame of reference during the 1960s. Thanks to authors such as Phillip Zelznick, Alfrend D. Chandler and Kenneth Andrews spread the idea of ​​forming thinking strategies from informal designs. From this school derived the main strategic planning tools and techniques such as the FODA matrix (SWOT in English).

School of planning

Similar to the school of design, the school of planning also developed during the 1960s and was consolidated during the 1980s. It differs from the school of design in that it does not coincide with the realization of informal schemes. On the contrary, it advocates a high degree of formalism and systematicity when formulating strategies. This school was widely influenced by the ideas of Frederick Taylor, who considered possible the institutionalization of expert personnel to increase efficiency and promote innovation.

School of positioning

Finally, the positioning school shares aspects with the previous schools, but differs in how much it recognizes the position that is occupied at a given moment as a strategic principle. Influenced by the military strategy and by the studies of the industrial economy carried out by Michael E. Porter, this school introduces concepts of great importance such as: competitive advantages, market forces, among others.

Descriptive schools

As for descriptive schools, these focus much more on the how of strategies than on the “can be”. In this sense, they break more radically with the normative and linear approaches of thought than their predecessors. These schools include the following: the business school, the cognitive school, the power school, the cultural school, and the environmental school.

Entrepreneurship School

The business or “entrepreneurship” school of strategic thought is strongly influenced by the essays of Joseph Schumpeter, especially by some of his concepts such as “creative destruction” according to which a Innovation in a sector changes the preeminent business model. From this approach, a strategy is a vision, a perspective that allows us to anticipate new things or new ways of doing known things.

Cognitive School

Cognitive strategic thinking conceives strategy as an entirely mental process. Strategies emerge, from this approach, as perspectives (schemes, ideas, concepts) that condition the reactions of those who possess them to environmental stimuli and conditions. According to this approach, these perspectives allow us to influence the present based on previous knowledge and experiences.

School of learning

For its part, the school of learning conceives strategic thinking as the result of individual and collective practice over time. Not only individuals are capable of learning, but also organizations. Patterns and plans for the future can be identified from previous experiences. Likewise, the strategies are conceived (in the same way as the cognitive school) to guide behavior in the present.

School of power

The so-called school of power considers that the strategies to be followed are the result of tensions between actors and politics in general. What an individual or organization can or cannot do is conditioned by the social relations in which they are inserted, but essentially by the relations of tension and conflict. Some strategic thinking games, such as the "prisoner's dilemma" thought experiment, reflect this strategic dimension.

Cultural School

The cultural school is very similar to the previous environment. However, the social component is highlighted not because of the conflict, but because expectations, values, perspectives and prejudices have a strong social component. In this sense, what a person or organization conceives as a strategy depends to a great extent on the cultural context in which it is inserted.

Environmental School

The environmental school considers the play of many forces around the person or organization that wants to carry out a strategy. These general forces are partly recognized in the design school approach, since it considers the set of internal capabilities with external possibilities.

Configuration Approach

Finally, the configuration approach is a kind of mixture between the previous approaches as determined by the circumstances and the experience of the strategist. Depending on the situation, one approach or another may be chosen, or a mixture of several approaches. Hence, different "configurations" are used as required by the case.

Examples of Strategic Thinking

Although strategic thinking has a preeminent application in the business world, it can be applied in various fields. It can be applied both for personal organization, as well as to achieve financial objectives and to manage organizations of a political nature or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Below are several examples of strategic thinking that serve to illustrate its real applicability.

Personal organization

The main application of strategic thinking is in daily life. This is because strategic thinking, rather than a planning approach, is a faculty that everyone can develop and cultivate. In this sense, strategic thinking allows people to direct their energies towards objectives that are truly valuable to them.

Market Positioning

Another example of strategic thinking involves the pursuit of business or financial goals. Specifically from a positioning point of view, a company can draw up strategies in the sense of how to achieve a position in the market, or maintain a favorable position over time.

Increasing productivity

Another example of strategic thinking in companies is the use of strategies aimed at increasing productivity. Tools such as strategic maps can help this process, since they allow visualizing the "how" to achieve said objective. Strategy maps, as will be seen below, allow us to see the relationship between the intangible assets and the tangible results of a company.

Improving Educational Processes

Educational processes can also be improved through strategic thinking. In these cases, it is also possible to observe what has served in the past (patterns), project future actions (plans) and use creativity to propose ingenious solutions to the daily problems of an educational institution. Strategic thinking in physical education would be a specific way of applying strategic thinking in educational processes.

Strategic planning techniques

There are multiple techniques in which strategic thinking is applied. However, this time four of them will be presented: the environment analysis, the SWOT matrix, the PESTAL analysis and the Strategic Maps.

Environment analysis

Environment analysis is used to assess the position of an actor in the midst of a complex scenario that they have to share with other actors. Although it is used in the business sphere, it could also be applied in personal life. This technique makes it possible to identify competitors, suppliers, customers and the field of competition.

SWOT Matrix

The SWOT matrix is ​​a classic tool for identifying internal qualities and external possibilities. On the one hand, the Strengths and Weaknesses are recognized, on the one hand, and the Opportunities and Threats, on the other. With the knowledge of both things, better strategies can be drawn up, that is, an action plan to reach (or maintain) a situation desirable.


Similar to environmental analysis, the PESTAL tool focuses on elements of the environment furthest away from the planning subject. Each of its acronyms corresponds to a large dimension of social reality: Politics, Economy, Society, Technology, Environment and Legality. All these dimensions must be considered by every person or organization when establishing some type of strategy.

Strategy Mapping

Finally, strategy mapping, as mentioned above, serves to link intangible assets (knowledge, skills) into tangible results. Through a concatenation of actions, which in turn are associated with different levels of an organization, it is explained how intangible goods are obtained and how these can be translated into desirable results, generally called "strategic objectives".

Such are some of the tools of strategic thinking, although they are usually presented as part of strategic planning. Although strategic thinking is different from strategic planning, the strategic approach is as much a part of one as the other. In fact, it can be said that strategic planning is mainly nourished by strategic thinking.

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Strategic thinking: What is, characteristics, types, elements, examples and techniques of the strategic approach
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