Strategic Planning-1st in Science of Construction Business Management Series

“Ugg” – That’s the sound I hear in my seminars every time I bring up “Strategic Planning”. Some construction executives in the room head for the rest room, get coffee, or simply glaze over in place and nap off. Throughout my teaching and consulting career I have found that many “hands-on” contractors who start and build construction companies reject the notion of strategic planning as an academic exercise that has no role to play in their pursuit of tangible profits. And to some degree they are right. 

Strategic “Thinking” Not Strategic “Planning”

All these years I have been trying to sell the wrong product to an unwilling audience. I have been trying to encourage strategic thinking while calling it strategic planning. Strategic planning is not strategic thinking. Strategic thinking was adopted from the military and introduced to business management during the 1960s at the Harvard Business School. However, strategic thinking concepts were quickly hijacked by planners who turned strategic vision into a highly complex process they called strategic planning. Some contractors intuitively mistrusted this artificial system that reduces their vision to an abstract statistical exercise. Strategic planning is analysis, while strategic thinking is synthesis. 

A Strategic Thinking Case Study

One day in 1943, Edwin Land’s three-year-old daughter asked why she could not immediately see the picture he had just taken of her. Within an hour this scientist conceived, and later developed, the camera that would transform his company. In other words, Land’s vision was the synthesis of the insight evoked by his daughter’s question and his vast technical knowledge. The result, the Polaroid camera and the early tech company that dominated photography for two decades.


Edwin Land created the Polaroid camera through a process of “strategic thinking”, not using a statistical planning system. Successful contractors and most construction professionals naturally possess the strategic thinking skills that enabled Land to invent the Polaroid camera. However, many reject strategic planning because they see it as an artificial academic process that interferes with their natural abilities. 

Strategic Thinking Defined

Here’s a simple definition of “strategic thinking” (that I have been calling “strategic planning” and, thereby, meeting resistance from contractors for 30 years!).


The strategic thinking that I have been trying to encourage is defined as: Capturing what managers have learned from all sources (both the insights from their personal experiences and the experiences of others throughout the organization and the hard data from market research and the like) and then synthesizing that learning into a vision of the direction that the business should pursue.

Planning is Thinking

In my new book (coming out next week) I describe planning like this:

“Planning is not making future decisions. Planning is concerned with making current decisions in light of the anticipated future. It is not what should be done in the future, but rather what should be done now to achieve outcomes in the uncertain future. Decisions can only be made in the present. Yet, decisions cannot be made only for the present. Once made, the strategic decisions may have long-term irrevocable consequences.” (The Secrets to Construction Business Success, Thomas C. Schleifer, Mounir El Asmar, Routledge, 2022)

Strategic Thinking

Strategic thinking down through the ages:

     • Socrates said that the ability to engage in strategic thinking was the one skill that all victorious generals possessed. 
     • Zhaoyang, the Chinese general famous for integrating his goals into his action plan, said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably not going to get there.”
     • Edward De Bono, coined the term, “Thinking outside the box”, as an encouragement to look for solutions from outside our usual thinking patterns.
     • Churchill famously said: “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”
     • Sun Tzu, the 6th century BC Chinese general said in The Art of War; “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
     • Warren Buffet, the world’s most successful investor, expressed his strategic thinking like this: “Our goal is modest: We simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful.”

Being the Boss

Every great leader in war and business demonstrates strategic thinking skills. Over the next ten weeks we will discuss how to become a seasoned strategic thinker and how to apply the skills to the management of a construction company. 

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