Harvard Business School recently announced a stand-alone course on Strategic IQ  that “examines the essential concepts and practices that will help you make your organization more agile and better equipped to prosper in a changing marketplace.” This is good news, and it’s sure to be an excellent programme—but why has it taken so long? Why is strategic IQ not as big a deal for business schools, academics, authors, consultants, and conference organizers as emotional intelligence? Why has so little been said about it?
As I’ve pointed out for as long as I can remember, in articles, books, talks, business school lectures, and conversations with clients, strategic IQ is not just an essential factor in any company’s competitiveness, it’s the essential factor.
To survive and thrive in a rapidly-changing world, you need people who can think and act strategically—not just efficient drones who’re oblivious to their environment, mindlessly take orders, and just do as they’re told. But while much has been said about the importance of people, teams, empowerment, “virtual organizations,” “organizational learning,” “emergent strategy,” “the wisdom of crowds,” innovation, and so on, one key point is glossed over: without a particular set of intelligences, no one will ever be worth of the label “strategist.” And which company do you know where there is a deliberate, systematic effort to develop strategic capabilities outside of the executive ranks?
In my 1988 book The New Age Strategist, I wrote:
“…while the ‘strategist’ might be one person, or even a small team, strategy formulation is not the strict preserve of that person or group—and certainly not of top management. The fact is, because so many of a firm’s people might set off a response to environmental changes, strategic management is a task almost everyone must be involved in.”
Then, in a 1997 article titled “Questions of strategy,” I said:
“Business strategy, like every journey through life, is a learning process. The first goal of every organisation should be to raise its “strategic IQ”—the ability of every person to participate to the best of their ability in scanning the environment, providing new insights, applying their imagination, and exploring the bounds of what’s possible.”
But this led to two questions: 1) what capabilities did an individual need to be able to participate that way? and 2) how to develop them?
These were questions I wrestled with for a long time. For answers, I dug into books and journals on management, psychology, and education, talked to leaders about their growth experiences, and watched people making decisions at work. And the more I read, saw, and heard, and the more deeply I reflected on it, the more convinced I became that the answer was, in fact, both clear and simple—and right under our noses.
It lay in strategic conversation.
After pointing out, in my 2001 book, Making Sense of Strategy, that “The ‘strategic IQ’ of your firm is, literally, a life and death factor,” I went on to say:
“Most valuable human development takes place in”the school of hard knocks, not in the classroom. Most people’s growth and inspiration results from their day-to-day activities and interactions. The conversations they’re involved in shape their attitudes and aspirations, and impact on their capabilities. Yet, common practices ensure that too many individuals are constrained rather than liberated, and that only a few are able to think and act strategically.
“… In effect, people are forced to short-change their companies, because their companies cut them out of the conversational loop and limit what they can do and what they can become.
“While the ‘heavies’ engage in a ‘big conversation’ about the firm’s context, its challenges, its strategy, and so on, the majority of employees are allowed to take part only in a ‘small conversation’ which focuses narrowly on their jobs, their specific tasks, the methods they use, and the results they must get.
The strategic IQ of most firms is pathetically low—because of the way they make strategy. But you can change that fast, by immediately involving as many people as possible in your company’s ‘big conversation.’ This single step will do more than anything else to align and motivate your team, and to empower them to conquer tomorrow.”
Harvard’s new programme focuses on four intelligences:
These are undoubtedly important, but I have a different take on the matter. Let me explain it like this:
Assume you’re about to hire a consultant to help you with your strategy. You obviously want the best strategy you can get. What mental skills would you expect of the person you’re about to rely on? Surely they’d be these:
- Foresight—the ability to look ahead into the future and anticipate what lies ahead, what’s likely to happen, and how things are likely to unfold.
- Insight—the ability to cut through clutter and complexity and to understand things incisively and in a new way.
- Analysis—the ability to collect information, decipher and make sense of it, and make it useful.
- Imagination—the ability to see what others have not seen, to think “what could be” where others are content with what is.
- Synthesis—the ability to connect disparate snippets of information, different sensations and perceptions, and unrelated ideas, to give them new meaning.
- Judgment—the ability to weigh up situations, facts, feelings, opinions, and so on, and to make choices about what must be done in a way that best balances risk and reward and leads to the most desirable outcomes possible.
Now, if these are the traits you’d want in a consultant, what about the people on your own team? What should you seek in them? What should you strive to develop in them? Other capabilities? Or these ones?
Answer: these ones.
This isn’t a contest between Harvard’s list and mine. In fact, there’s a strong case for putting them together, for they work as one. But it is important to recognize that strategic thinking skills are quite different from equally critical social and emotional skills.
What happened to creative IQ, you might ask? And the answer is, it’s a product of all the six elements in my model. Creativity is a complex process. It’s not just about wacky ideas.
And rational IQ? Same thing: if the term refers to the ability to confront and deal with reality, to keep a cool head under pressure, and to make well-reasoned decisions, all of those come from the capabilities in my model. Couple those strategic thinking skills with social and emotional skills, and everything is covered.
The fact that strategic IQ has made it as a Harvard Business School course is an important breakthrough. Now, watch the “thought leadership” mob leap onto the bandwagon.