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The Vanguard Occasional Paper Series

Thinking About Strategic Thinking: Developing a more effective strategic thinking culture in Defence

The Vanguard, No. 1, April 202

Major General Mick Ryan

To cite this publication: Mick Ryan, ‘Thinking About Strategic Thinking’, The Vanguard, no.1 (Canberra: Department of Defence, 2021),

DOI: https://doi/prg/10/51174/VAN.001/ILJO7539

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Individuals think strategically, not institutions. However, the development of strategic thinkers cannot be separated from institutional culture.

What can the Australian Defence Force and the wider Department of Defence do to nurture and build better strategic thinkers? In this paper, the first in The Vanguard occasional paper series, Major General Mick Ryan highlights the challenges and provides a framework for developing a strategic learning culture that supports strategic thinking at all levels of Defence.

Senior levels in the Australian Defence Force and Defence, more broadly, recognise that an improved institutional capacity for strategic thinking is required to navigate Australia’s defence and security challenges, now and in the future. In addressing those concerns this paper directly responds to the challenges and opportunities raised by the 2020 Chief of Defence Force question: how do we nurture and build better strategic thinkers?

The paper identifies broad gaps in how Defence has traditionally approached strategic thinking skills in its people. These are synthesised into four specific challenges:

  • defining strategic thinking and what Defence wants in its strategic thinkers
  • nurturing a learning culture that values and validates strategic thinking skills and activities
  • identifying and selecting talented individuals from junior to senior ranks
  • developing strategic thinking capabilities across Defence over the long term to better effect

Yet the paper demonstrates that these challenges are also opportunities. They provide a framework for considering and assessing ways forward.

A number of core skills and behaviours are suggested as ways to better define strategic thinking. They include the capacity to understand and evaluate alternative perspectives; creative and critical thinking; curiosity and a love of learning; interpersonal and communication skills; political and social acumen; and the ability to develop, execute and evaluate problem-solving strategies.

Key to nurturing a strategic learning culture is to reward and model behaviours that encourage strategic thinking at all levels of an organisation. Hence incentive structures that inhibit long-term thinking, intellectual curiosity, and self-development, while rewarding short-term priorities, narrow focus and time-consuming processes, should be identified and amended to encourage a more holistic approach to strategic thought.

Defence has the capacity to develop an explicit talent management process for identifying strategic thinkers. This can be both systematic and proactive, aiming to locate strategic thinking skills at every career stage. We should appraise strategic thinking abilities and improvements in our graduate programs, education and training activities, and annual performance reports. Strategic thinking potential can also be found through providing experiential opportunities that expose our personnel to problems requiring strategic thinking skills.

We will develop better strategic thinkers by combining talent, education and experience. We should seek to provide our strategic thinkers with real-world experiences that challenge them, construct diverse, multidisciplinary teams that test and extend their skills, and expose them to a wide variety of educational opportunities. They should be mentored and encouraged to contribute to online learning communities that encourage the competition of ideas and life-long learning. And, we should provide an effective balance of career management incentives.

These are all avenues that can build better strategic thinkers in a whole-of-force and a broader whole-of-department context. By taking the opportunity to further evolve the ADF-endorsed Joint Profession Military Education curriculum these elements can be consolidated into a clear strategic-thinking development continuum: one that finds, nurtures, and builds strategic thinking capability to benefit all of Defence.

Update: 27th April 2021

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