Strategic competencies

Development Policy01 Dec 2009Seerp Wigboldus

Being strategic may mean something different to acting strategically. The latter relates more to what we do and the first relates more to what we are capable of. In terms of ‘what we are capable of’, a view on ‘strategic competencies’ becomes an interesting perspective.

Strategic competencies equip people and organizations to take position and move in a highly dynamic context that poses constantly changing challenges to the realization of their aims. Lacking such competencies undermines the ability to adapt to such changing environments, leading to increasing marginalization. Strategic competencies go beyond a ‘how to’ approach. They can be compared to the game of chess. Winning the game involves much more than mere application of the rules of the game. There is no fixed course of action that can be planned beforehand, because of multiple uncertainties about the other player’s moves. Playing the game does involve knowing the rules of the game, but also the ability to apply relevant experience, the ability to develop and constantly adapt scenarios, and more.

Strategic competencies play a crucial role in our ability to think and act strategically. With strategic competencies in place, managers, planners and policy makers will be able to make contextualized decisions tailored to the dynamics of a specific situation. In spite of that, strengthening strategic competencies is not a common approach to capacity development in international development. There is a tendency to strengthen compliance with external standards and train people how to do the ‘trick’. The figure below illustrates the difference between these approaches.

Strategic competencies strengthen independence, which empowers people to contextualize decision making by navigating the multifaceted specifics of the situation in which they are involved.

I consider strategic thinking to be a kind of umbrella concept for a range of strategic competencies. Strategic thinking at the organizational level provides the context in which individual strategic thinking can occur and be led to affect the organization. Organizations need to create the structures, processes and systems that foster ongoing strategic dialogue, and take advantage of the ingenuity and creativity of every individual employee/stakeholder.

The following simply lists a number of strategic competencies. The overview is not meant to be complete and there is evidently overlap between different categories, but it gives an idea of what I am talking about:

  • Conceptual and visual thinking competencies
  • Metacognition competencies
  • Historical thinking competencies
  • Hypothesis thinking competencies
  • Systems thinking competencies
  • Intent-focus competencies
  • Intelligent opportunism competencies
  • Strategic leadership & liaison competencies

Strategic competencies relate, in part, more to art and attitude than to skills and expertise. This makes it less tangible in terms of capacity development. It may be part of the reason why we observe a tendency to focus capacity development on helping people and organizations in the process of fulfilling certain tasks. Including a focus on strengthening strategic competencies broadens perspectives on capacity development processes. It underscores the understanding of capacity development as being much more than mere training.