Synthetic Thinking

In Henry Mintzberg’s 1994 book, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, the author calls for a new method to create effective strategies. He notes that “Strategic planning isn’t strategic thinking. One is analysis, the other is synthesis.” Mintzberg draws a definitive line between those that create strategy and those that devise the plan, arguing that the two are disparate exercises. He says “Real strategic change requires inventing new categories, not rearranging old ones.” Sage wisdom from the 90’s that has perhaps been forgotten by many American companies on defense rather than offense during the economic downturn.

In previous blog posts, we have discussed the assault on the current definition and practice of innovation. In some ways, the proverbial pendulum may have swung too far towards the creativity pole and away from quantitative analysis, causing many to doubt the credibility of innovation as a discipline. Today, innovation as a profession is rooted in intuition, summed up aptly by management consultant Peter Drucker, “innovation is the work of knowing rather than doing.”

But what if we merged the practices of strategic planning and innovation? Ultimately they seek the same end but each lack skills the other possesses. Numbers cannot possibility tell the whole story and ideas are a dime a dozen until they are sized and validated.

It is simple really, creativity + analysis= strategy. We believe that if the best of the two practices are brought together, companies can achieve synthetic thinking- one of the highest human functions.

Noun 1. synthetic thinking – the combination of ideas into a complex whole


The ability to generate original ideas and then validate, organize and monetize them is the holy grail of strategy.  This new team then must remain nimble, always observing and testing the market. Strategy is by definition a plan. However, it is a living organism not a document that is updated every few years and left on the shelf. This new team should be tasked with observing the emerging trends in the world, the socio-economic factors at work and the psychodynamics and drivers behind the groups of people in the value chain. Relying solely on historical data and trends to inform your next moves does not generate big leaps in the marketplace.

How do you build this team at your company? Scratch your innovation group. Kill your strategic planning group. Then repurpose them to a diverse cross-functional team of people tasked with identifying growth opportunities for the company. This should not be a homogenous group, forget the common pedigrees.  Get some financial guys in there, consumer insights folks, marketing analysts, sales and don’t forget operations. What do they all have in common?  Curiosity. Let them explore the possibilities together and then devise the strategy.