This article was originally published with The Manila Times on July 4, 2019.
Elon Musk is closer to his dream of sending a mission to Mars. His company, SpaceX, is currently building Starship, a multi-billion dollar rocket that could one day take people to the moon, Mars, and launch thousands of satellites into orbit.
Musk is doing this because of his dream he shared back in the early 2000s at the founding of SpaceX. He now plans that by 2024, his company will take advantage of a planetary alignment, which happens once every two years with Mars and Earth, to close the gap between the planets and launch the first crude mission to Mars, land there, build a propellant plant on the ground to start a sustainable energy source, and ultimately build a colony.
People call him a visionary. I call him a consummate strategic thinker.
What sets him apart from the rest of us is his ability to think and move into the progressive futures realm, where he challenges the current paradigm and reinterpret how to do things now to meet the challenges of the future; like how SpaceX achieved a successful rocket landing and recovery of a first stage in 2015 which cut the cost of space travel by 80 percent and revolutionizing this field.
His skill, strategic thinking, is about integrating the future into your decision-making processes today by thinking big, deep, and long.
Thinking big is looking at the big picture with a systems perspective – that things are interrelated, interconnected, and interdependent. It’s understanding how we connect and interact with others and the external environment.
Musk brings this kind of thinking to a higher level by thinking about the universe and the cosmos. He said he’s gunning for Mars because he wants homo sapiens to become a “multi-planet species” which “beats the hell out of a single-planet species”. This grand vision is to ensure the long-term continuation of our species and earthly evolutionary branch.
For business leaders, thinking big is about learning “to see the larger systems of which they are a part” and shifting “focus from optimising their piece of the puzzle to building shared understanding and larger vision”, according to business author Peter Senge.
Thinking deep, on the other hand, is about challenging our assumptions and belief systems. Beliefs serve as blinders which cause us to miss or simply reject important information. They are sticky – once you have a belief, you’ll interpret the world to match the belief, and you’ll throw away or discount evidence against the belief. Beliefs about the future will have an impact on how you think strategically.
Musk again proved his “deep” thinking when SpaceX announced its latest technical triumph: the test firing of the first full-scale Raptor engine which will be used in the Starship. The technology behind this next generation engine, known as “full-flow staged combustion” has for decades been considered all but impossible by the traditional aerospace players. Yet, just six years after Musk announced SpaceX was designing the Raptor, they’ve completed their first flight-ready engine.
Business leaders can think deep like Musk by thinking how deeply are we questioning our ways of operating; how we operate from our interpretation of the past, or our anticipation of the future; and questioning our assumptions today if they are valid into the future.
Lastly, to think long is about scanning the environment and building scenarios way into the far future, using that knowledge to expand your thinking about your potential future options to make better informed decisions about actions to take today, and positioning your organization effectively in the external environment.
As early as year 2000, Musk was musing about Mars exploration. Now he has his plans laid out until 2030 when he expects to have some sort of human settlement on Mars.
Business leaders can think long by understanding how far into the future are we looking, by understanding the shape of alternative futures for our organization. We can develop this by scanning our environment actively – scanning in strange places, scanning for diversity of perspectives, and looking for connections, collisions and intersections.
Strategic thinking is thinking big, deep, and long. Its aim is to understand – as best we can – the long term context of our decisions today, so that we make those decisions as wise and as robust as possible.
The author is President & CEO of Hungry Workhorse Consulting, a digital and culture transformation firm, and Co-Founder of Caucus Inc. He teaches strategic management in the MBA Program of De La Salle University. The author may be emailed at email@example.com.