HomeColumnistsStrategic thinking, strategic planning are not the same

Strategic thinking, strategic planning are not the same

In previous installments I have explored the issues of strategic thinking and strategic planning. The feedback l have received has shown that people cannot differentiate between the two. I have noticed the same confusion when I host strategic planning retreats where l am often asked to distinguish between the two. I will in this installment unpack the distinction between the two.

By Robert Mandeya

There is some scholarly overview found in the June 1998 volume 31 of Long Range Planning. In a very high-level discussion by Loizos Heracleous entitled “Strategic Thinking or Strategic Planning?” Heracleous presents a variety of perspectives from business academicians differentiating between the two. While these scholarly discussions are intellectually stimulating, we are left lacking a simple and practical explanation to differentiate between the two.

Thought vs plan

What is a thought and what is a plan? A thought is what comes as an idea, a concept or even an opinion that comes to our minds.

A plan is what we put in place or develop when we decide to make that thought actionable. However, “strategic planning ormanagement” and “strategic thinking” exist in a symbiotic relationship. The two not only work together but also require each other. Strategic planning without strategic thinking will digress into a sluggish and lifeless process of setting goals and measuring objectives.

Strategic thinking without strategic planning or management will cannibalise itself in a quest for structure and process. Strategic thinking informs strategic planning or management. Strategic planning or management gives voice, action and structure to strategic thinking. I will at this point look at some basic differences between the two.


The purpose of strategic thinking is to envision or develop a solution. It is also to enable brainstorming of approaches that can help to meet the strategic intent and goals of a specific project or initiative. The purpose of strategic planning, on the other hand, is to conceptualise and create the actual steps or actions that will result in the project or the goals to get delivered.


Strategic thinking is a skill. You can develop it, leverage it or improve it. Put simply strategic thinking implies the capacity to manage inter-related events, systems, processes, and people that affect the organisation’s actions. Strategic thinking identifies the questions whose responses will help anticipate the clients’ and the programme’s future needs.
Strategic planning is a process. It has to be conducted or carried out. So while thinking in a certain manner can be a natural or a nurtured attribute, planning strategically is a process that drives results or needs tactical actions to be defined within its framework. In other words, strategic planning is a structured process aimed at improving the organisation’s future performance. It is a process that entails making decisions today to obtain results in the future; strategic thought is an essential ingredient of strategic planning.


While both can be done by individuals or in groups, usually strategic thinking is more of a personal or individual competency and attribute. Strategic planning involves multiple people or a team to come together. A leader or manager can do both — think and plan strategically. But the former has better results when done alone and the latter yields greater results when done in a group.


While these two go hand-in-hand, many people, who are able to think strategically and conceptualise, are not able to plan in the same manner, and vice versa. So there is a distinct difference in inclination to usually do either of these in an effective manner, within individuals.

Seamless link

These are the primary differences between strategic thinking and planning. They do seem to be linked in a seamless manner, which is how they can have a significant impact. But fundamentally they are different and the effect they have on organisations, or teams, is different. Strategic thinking can provide the right direction, but actual goal achievement takes place due to strategic planning. Conversely, strategic planning can help in implementing an approach, but without strategic thinking it will not yield the results that are needed.


In working with our clients, we find that most have a relatively strong understanding and appreciation for the value of strategic planning or management. Likewise, we find that many are hungering for an organisational culture, which is better trained and more engaged in thinking strategically.

So in our attempt to remain practical and engaged in the “real world” of our clients’ business, we underscore that at its essence, “Strategic Thinking” is a way of viewing challenges and opportunities from a variety of perspectives and altitudes, in order to proffer the very best solutions and directions. It is the habit of visualising alternative futures for the organisation and their impact on others. It is not just a way of thinking what could be, but also a way of seeing what should be. Thus strategic thinking is more than just “thinking outside the box”, it is also knowing which box to think outside of!

Professionals looking to move into a leadership role need to master both. That said, training and cultivating an organisational culture to think strategically is a vital tool throughout the strategic planning process.

Mandeya is an executive coach, trainer in human capital development and corporate education, a certified leadership and professional development practitioner and founder of the Leadership Institute for Research and Development (LiRD). — robert@lird.co.zw, info@lird.co.zw or +263 772 466 925.

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