The concept of ‘strategy’ is a funny one in organisations. It has a connotation of importance, forward thinking, and even a dash of glamour. If you can get the word ‘strategy’ in your title, it is likely to come with a good pay rise and a great deal of extra status, e.g. Strategic HR Director or Director of Strategy. Although it is arguable whether it deserves its exalted status, the ability to think strategically is an important one. But what is it to think strategically? 

The-Strategizing-Brain

There are many different ways to conceptualise strategic thinking, but one, the Herrman Brain Dominance Model (HBDM), links thinking to the brain’s anatomy. 

The model starts from the human body and the fact that different people have different physical dominances, e.g. right hand, left eye. This asymmetry of paired structures in our physical bodies is perpetuated in our brain in the two big hemispheres and the two halves of the limbic system.

According to the HBDM, there is a link between physical dominance and preferred thinking mode as both find their genesis in the development of the brain from birth.

The model locates different modes of thinking in different parts of the brain, each of which is needed in strategy development. These modes correspond to left-brain/ right-brain dominance and cerebral (upper)- limbic (lower) processing, creating a two by two matrix and four distinctive modes of thinking.

The first mode is logical, analytical, fact-based and quantitative. It is the sort of thinking that is for example necessary to analyse a wide range of market and customer data, and may tell you in great detail that the highest margin market over the next five years is likely to be that of organic, low fat food for cats with single female professionals as their owners who live in one-bedroom apartments in major capital cities.

This mode of thinking is associated with left-brain dominance and cerebral processing, and hence located in the upper left hand quadrant of the matrix.

The second mode of thinking is holistic, intuitive, integrating and synthesizing. It is the thinking that can look across vast volumes of detail and spot the trends without drowning in the detail.

This thinking may tell you that developing a wholesome, organic brand will offer potential opportunities across many different food categories. This mode of thinking is associated with right-brain dominance and cerebral processing, i.e. in the upper right hand quadrant of the matrix.

To translate your much-improved understanding into implementable strategies, you will need a third thinking style. This style is organized, sequential, planned and detailed.

It provides you the Gantt charts, advertising schedules, job descriptions etc. needed to translate ideas into actions and get your products on the shelf in the shops. The bottom left hand quadrant of the matrix represents this mode of thinking.

Lastly, the model includes a thinking mode that is interpersonal, feeling based, kinesthetic and emotional. It is important in many different ways and, witnessing the rise in popularity of emotional intelligence, increasingly recognised for its value.

Our ability to relate to other people is fundamental to everything we do. This thinking mode would be critical when for example developing a strategic approach to relational selling and is associated with the bottom right hand quadrant of the matrix.

Strategic thinking requires all these modes at different times. Most people have a natural preference for two (or particularly women sometimes even three) of these modes.

Recognising our propensity to fall back on particular modes at the expense of others can help to step back and consciously decide how to work through a particular issue. It can also help to identify the strengths and weaknesses across a team. Ultimately the objective is to approach issues with a whole-of-brain approach.

Herrmann International has also developed an instrument (i.e. questionnaire) to create a profile of personal thinking preferences for individuals or across teams.

Unusually for these sorts of instruments, it includes a range of questions about physicality (e.g. whether you are right-handed), which reflects its linkage to the brain’s anatomy.

There are the usual discussions about accuracy and reliability of the instrument, as well as discussions about the assertion that the thinking styles can be physically located in the brain.

However, the usefulness of the model does not depend solely on the instrument or even whether the physical location of thinking modes can be determined accurately. The conceptual model remains helpful in understanding different modes of thinking when strategizing, and helps shifting our mode depending on what a situation required.

And how does the Herrmann Brain Dominance Model relate to the glamour of strategic thinking? It offers a metaphor that goes beyond the accepted left-brain/right-brain dichotomy and rightfully emphasises the need for more glamorous and higher cerebral strategizing, as well as lower limbic thinking.

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Published on:
29 November 2010

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Maurizio Floris

Maurizio Floris

Maurizio Floris is Program Director for the John Grill Centre for Project Leadership and Acting Director for the MBA. He has also been an Associate of Melbourne Business School's Executive Development arm Mt Eliza since 2006. Prior to that, Maurizio was in industry for nearly two decades. His key roles include Strategy Consultant with Andersen Consulting (now Accenture), General Manager with Chubb, and CEO of Impart Corporation (Oracle/ university joint venture in e-learning). His broad industry experience includes financial services, utilities, fast moving consumer goods, publishing, IT, agribusiness and international development. Maurizio has extensive international experience, and has worked in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia.

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