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Ellen F. Goldman
Strat egic Think ing
At the Top
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the research investigated the different ways in which the executives acquired their expertise in strategic thinking — a process that typically took more than a decade. Ellen F. some have advocated for companies to develop the strategic thinking of their executives as a core competency. Defining Strategic Thinking First. Virginia-based consul-tancy that specializes in strategic thinking. The data showed that strategic thinking arises from 10 specific types of experiences — for instance. She is also the principal of Growth Partners. strategic thinking and strategy making are all synonymous.3 (See “About the Research.) The study then investigated the totality of experiences (educational. Expertise in thinking is not the product of innate ability and pure serendipity. offering important implications for management development and the practice of strategy. “Many practitioners and theorists have wrongly assumed that strategic planning. and do they need to follow any specific chronology? To answer these and other questions. spearheading a major growth initiative or dealing with a threat to organizational survival. experiences or plan-ning processes. though. the man-agement guru. But how exactly should organizations accomplish this? Past studies on the subject have been limited. Comment on this article or contact the author through smrfeedback@mit. typically focusing on singular teaching methods. a Reston.”4 To avoid any confusion. are more important than others. executives appear to gain their expertise in strategic thinking through one of three developmental patterns. Moreover. I conducted a study that identified executives who were considered the top strategic thinkers in their industry. what exactly is “strategic thinking”? Although numerous books and articles purport to cover the subject. the research has yielded little insight into the broader picture of how individuals tend to acquire expertise in strategic thinking. Goldman is a visiting assistant professor of human and organizational learning in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University.” p. According to Henry Mintzberg. my study used the following definition: Strategic thinking is a distinctive management activity whose pur-pose is “to discoverstrategic novel.edu. In addition. Goldman . imaginative strategies which can rewrite the rules of Ellen F.2 As such. at least in best practice. What types of work experiences.76. for example. It arises from specific experiences (personal. These findings help demystify the process by which strategic thinking is learned. they typically deal more with strategic planning and strategic management. interpersonal.Leadership Strategic Thinking At the Top S trategic thinking is generally considered important to a company’s per-formance. organizational and external) which occur over 10 or more years. job related or other) that contributed to the high ability of those individuals.1 Indeed.
edu 75 .mit.SUMMER 2007 MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW sloanreview.
and fi-nally by identifying thematic connections across all the data. no. 1 (1994): 1-12. participants and saturation of information was A pool of 36 potential executives was generated. the study participants volun-teered views that spannedfrom all 10 experiences. peer debriefing. and those experiences contributed to the development of expertise in strategic thinking. notrepresented four levels of interaction: personal. But each individual About the Research The goal of this study was to identify how expertise in The Seidman phenomenological in-terviewing strategic thinking develops. The inter-views. The interviews were transcribed. and no two executives had the same set of the nature/nurture spectrum.” learning to think strategically would be more or one that can be acquired.”5 Furthermore. with measuring any levels of cognitive functioning.the Ability to Think Strategically. This question is at the heart of everydifficult but not impossible.Leadership the competitive game. enhance the understanding and impor-tance attached to those experiences. J.iv Numerous steps helped ensure the trustworthiness of the study. The professional work their memory. discussion of individual abilities. (See “Ten Experiences That Contribute to nature-versus-nurture argument was moot to this research. a prolonged engagement with the partici-pants.v 1. from which 10 were ultimately selected to participate.iii The mapping process also provided the participants with the opportunity to work collaboratively with the researcher during the discovery process. the second labeling”i was used to select the referral sources. Based on the comments provided by the The individuals were all CEOs and were participants. cogni-tive maps are used in research on strategic type of organization (teaching versus community) and decision making: to focus peo-ple’s attention. . reached at 10 participants. reveal gaps in information. As such. systems-oriented.6 A related question is whether strategic thinking is an innate skillsome “hard-wiring. the research was limited to one industry consisted of three 90-minute interviews with each — healthcare — and to only the provider segment participant. Shanteau. including researcher epoche. focused on the reconstruction of their experiences who were ex-perienced healthcare strategy and their developmental process. which were all audiotaped. Sternberg. theorganizational and external. trigger gender (male versus female). that even the individual with the strongest pronature view specified as being conceptual. MyThe study identified 10 experiences that contributed to the devel-opment study was concerned with identifying the ex-periences thatof a person’s ability to think strategically. and the resulting 15. “Cognitive Conceptions of Expertise. directional (linkingfelt that experiences were still necessary to develop a person’s strategic thinking ability. and the third consultants and leaders of professional encouraged reflection on the meaning of that organizations. and R. And most participants felt that without the future with the past) and opportunistic.“ International Journal of Expert Systems 7.” Acta Psychologica 68 (September 1988): 203-215. The process the process. Given the complexity of techniqueii was utilized to gather data. triangulation of data. and Seidman’s worked and who met the study’s specific definition of criteria of sufficient numbers to reflect the range of an expert strategic thinker.”) Every ex-ecutive did not benefit Interestingly.S. highlight experience of the participants ranged from 23 to 40 key factors related to their experiences and years. and it pro-duced a tangible product that resulted from the time the participants invested in the study. then by capturing the es-sence of the entire experience of becoming an expert strategic thinker for the different participants (through the preparation of individual profiles). identify two or three individuals with whom they had utilized a semistructured protocol. “Psychological Characteristics and Strategies of Expert Decision Makers. member checks. It should be noted. graphic maps of their experiences were representative of the general demographics of U. with experiences.000 pages of data were analyzed. interviews in a manner similar to the way in which setting of the organization (urban versus suburban).J. A technique known as “social context for the participants’ experiences. peer code check-ing and the establishment of an audit-like trail. prepared. But even those leadership theorists who believe in inherent mental processing capabilities7 note that suchTen Contributing Experiences abilities must be enhanced as part of management development. in-terpersonal. and to envision potential futures signifi-cantlymost falling somewhere in the middle. The figures were used in subsequent health-care CEOs with respect to geographic region. strategic thinking wasever. The sources were then asked to process. The first interview estab-lished the within that industry. first by reducing the volume of information to what was most important and interesting. howdifferent from the present.
M. 3. Seidman. Y. “Interviewing As Qualitative Research: A Guide for Researchers in Education and the Social Sciences. 3 (May 1992): 267-285. (New York: Teachers College Press. Lincoln and E. “Maps For Managers: Where Are We? Where Do We Go From Here?” Journal of Management Studies 29. California: Sage Publications. 4.S. 5. Guba.2.” 2nd ed.mit. no. C. 76 MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW SUMMER 2007 sloanreview.G. 1985). Fiol and A. Huff. Moustakas. “Phenomenological Research Methods” (Thousand Oak. I.S. 1994). California: Sage Publications.edu . “Naturalistic Inquiry” (Newbury Park. C. 1998).
the interactions were private and spontaneous. The most impor- Organizational Monitoring Results/Benchmarking Doing Strategic Planning Spearheading a Major Growth Initiative External Dealing With a Threat to Organizational Survival Vicarious Experiences tant factor here was the responsibility for significant projects (for example. bringing” and “education” are grouped together because the study participants discussed them interchangeably. and views of competitors detailed by the various market segments. informal conversations to highly aggressive. with information on purchaser preferences and use.described at least one experience at Ten Experiences That Contribute to the Ability to Think Strategically each of the four levels of interaction. Other key data tracked each market segment’s stated preferences in relation to the actual behavior of those customers.] Being Mentored Many executives have mentors. reinforcing one another. confrontational exchanges. The first is having planning sessions with management teams on a regular basis. Those who do are individuals who are in frequent contact with the executive (at least once daily). Becoming a CEO This experience is somewhat paradoxical. Every executive in the research study did not benefit from all 10 experiences. organizational and external. [Note: All the individuals that the study identified as experts in strategic thinking were CEOs. Such efforts were usually extensive and fairly sophisticated. Family Upbringing/Education “Family upExpertise in strategic thinking arises from the contributions of 10 experiences that can be grouped into four levels of interaction: personal. if not all. for example. Monitoring Results/Benchmarking participants cited the The im- boards want individuals who already have expertise in strategic thinking as their CEOs. the views of important external parties) which enabled a “big picture” view of their business. such as the required reading of materials that help focus people’s . but not all men- portance of their involvement in monitoring the operational and market performance of their organizations. often monthly or quarterly. Doing Strategic Planning development of strategic thinking The tors help others to develop their strategic thinking. their influence starts early in an executive’s career. of the decisions related to those initiatives. In general. interpersonal. they gained access to important information (for instance. but each individual reported at least one experience at each of the four levels of interaction. One aspect noted was the value of exploring different perspectives. for example. within a few years ability is enhanced by participation in strategic planning processes with three characteristics. Market data. even though this attribute was not a criterion in the selection process. Many tion’s vice president of planning. But many of the study participants cited becoming a CEO as important to the development of their strategic thinking because. General Work Experiences The participants cited experience in a variety of organizational types and locations. with that promotion. which provided exposure to numerous strategic issues and familiarity with a breadth of strategies. evaluating a business for sale or turning around an organization that was facing bankruptcy) and the freedom to make most. providing immediate feedback. Moreover. implementing the merger of two organizations. The second is preparation for these sessions. through travel and Level of Interaction Personal Experience Family Upbringing/Education General Work Experiences exposure to different cultures as well as Becoming a CEO through debate training and practice of Interpersonal Being Mentored Being Challenged By a Key Colleague the Socratic method. were often segmented by geography and demographics. with a wide range in tone from relaxed. the two types of experiences typically occurred simultaneously.
edu SUMMER 2007 MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 77 . perhaps as a first boss.strategic thinking. But even less tant role by challenging the thinking of the executives.of that individual’s first job.owed by business-unit goals and tactical plans. for example. think- ing and provide a sense of the meeting’s purpose.mit. for example — can help develop an executive’s executive. structured output — establishing a general direction and imIndividuals performing this role worked very closely with the mediate next steps. sloanreview. as his boss. board chairman or organiza. The third is the formal output of the planning process: often an overall plan foll Being Challenged By a Key Colleague Colleagues played an impor.
and re-quired considerable responsibility on the part of the executive Dealing With a Threat to Organizational Survival The types of threats that most contribute to the development of strategic thinking are those that involve attempts at control by another entity.Leadership Spearheading a Major Growth Initiative These projects must in-volve significant complexity. — usually the individual had to perform tasks that were materially new to him. acquiring an organization (identifying. Generally speaking. years with a wide range of frequency: The interaction could occur monthly for a few hours. Interestingly. but they did not occur in any specific order (except for the obvious categories of “family upbringing/education. The experiences occur over years. substantially sharpening their focus. negotiating with and acclimating the new group) and building a new facility (that is. Avid Alone Time Vicarious Experiences This category includes interactions with others in similar roles. “When you do … make a mistake. the freedom to make important deci-sions makes these projects valuable to the development of strategic thinking ability. but they may amplify the value of those experiences. In addition to the 10 experiences.” “being mentored.” Neither of these factors is sufficient to develop strategic thinking ability without the requisite experiences described earlier. for example. The first was personal characteristics. Some of the experiences catalyzed others. be both capital and labor intensive and require at least a year to complete. The second was a supportive work environment. each of the 10 experiences took place over a significant period of time.” and “becoming a CEO”). As with the category of general work experiences. particularly regarding failure. and each is fueled by the individual’s natural curiosity (large oval). As one executive explained. with the frequency of contact being an important factor. detail-oriented. quarterly for one day or three days twice annually. often in excess of one year. Examples include estab-lishing a new program (developing the business case. overseeing its construction). the to Life executives described their development in a manner consistent with one of three distinct patterns. obtaining regulatory approval. including the presence of a strong management team that frees up the CEO’s time to focus on strategic issues and contributes to his thinking. goal-oriented. overseeing facility construction and re-cruiting staff). Also of impor-tance was the attitude of the board. the regular contact is enhanced by small group interactions and social time. Past Colleagues The Overall Developmental Process The development of an in executive’s Professio ability to think nal strategically develops gradually Organizati over ons a considerable amount of time. such as by reading business publications. receptive to criticism. and during that time their confidence grew as they became more comfortable General Work dealing with increasing levels Father’s of business complexity and Approach ambiguity. In many cases. Planning Natural Retreats Meetings with Other Executives . curious. the study identified two other important factors. The study participants also noted the benefit of vicarious experiences gained through indirect means. being methodical. balanced. Most participants in the Curiosity study said they took more than 10 years to acquire their expertise. a perfectionist and a mav-erick. expertise in strategic thinking arises from the culmination of various experiences (small ovals) which provide new and different perspectives. the contact is maintained for several Pattern 1: The Development of Understanding In this developmental pattern. This figure is a reproduction of the actual map created during interactions with one executive in the study who best exemplified this particular patternSignificant of development. specifically. not fixing the blame. which occur repeatedly and that could have a severe impact on the ex-ecutive’s organization. a monthly pro-fessional meeting of CEOs that includes sessions in which people break into smaller groups (perhaps geared toward specific topics) followed by dinner with ample time for networking opportuni-ties. they’re worried about fixing the problem. Such experiences typically force a major rethinking of issues that strike at the core of the individuals in-volved. Usually. The patterns.
which can best be understood throughinto how expertise in strategic graphic maps that were created with thethinking is acquired. provide valu-able insights 78 MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW SUMMER 2007 sloanreview. participants.mit.edu .
you need to look at the problem acquired after years of honing the from a different angle. experience (both actual and activity followed by a step-like progression. no matter how big or small the Understanding. vi-carious) and discussion. thus expanding his ability to think strategically. The result: The executive learns to see all sides of an issue and is able to Pattern 3 The final developmental pattern is alter the angle from which he views a problem to search for a better solution. expertise in strategic thinking is the result of the executive continually asking the same three questions (large ovals): Where are we going? How are we getting there? Are we executing efficiently? The arrows denote the flow of knowledge from the various experiences (small ovals) to the three questions. (See “Pattern 3: The Pattern 2 This pattern includes the three major steps of a logical planning processCompletion of a Hierarchy of Chal-lenges. Note that an experience can provide value to more than one of the questions.) Key features include modest initial to get there — with each step informed by information.”) One executive described the process this way: There’s a solution toissue. This figure is a reproduction of the actual map created during interactions with one executive in the study who best exemplified this particular pattern of development.”) Key The catalysts to movement can be ei-ther positive or negative: opportunities to build features include the use of data to fuel thinking new services as well as pressures from financial losses. (See “Pattern 2: The Practice of Rational Planning. Boss Data Monitoring Benchmarks Question of Legacy Practice s Best Mentors Logical Evaluation of Alternatives Desired Metrics Time Where Problems/ Complaints Use Past Successes Going? (Vision) Dialogue with Team How Getting There? (Strategies) (Models) Community Views General Business Knowledge (Standards) Sense of Ownership Beta Methodical Thinker Mistakes After-the-Fact Groups Critique (Implementation) Is Execution Efficient? Pattern 1 The first pattern reflects a repetitive process of using past experiences toand the repeated application of the three consider alternative perspectives. (See “Pat-tern 1: The Development of steps. In thisportrayed as the tackling of bigger and bigger manner — through the exploration of different perspectives repeatedly over time —business challenges. — understanding where you are.Pattern 2: The Practice of Rational Planning In this developmental pattern. The key ingredient here is a natu-ral curiosity that fuels the practice. with the execu-tive’s ability to think strategically growing the executive develops expertise in strategic thinking. and if you can’t come up with it. with expertise in strategic thinking every prob-lem.” p. continuously over time. determining where you want to be and detailing how80. executive’s search for greater understanding. takeover attempts and other .
challenges to survival. perspectives. Expertise in thinking strategically is acquired by meeting andand how the ex-ecutives approached those effectively dealing with the challenges.mit. the 10 experiences) sloanreview. They illustrate both what occurred (specifically. with each experience improving the executive’sexperiences (namely.edu REVIEW 79 SUMMER 2007 MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT . by considering different ability. by using a planning model or by The three patterns reflect how executives described the ways in which they learned tojust divthink strategically.
some general salient point here is that all theguidelines do apply. TheNevertheless. ing in and doing what was needed). expertise in strategic thinking results from the executive tackling increasingly difficult chal-lenges over the course of years. Experiexecutives in the study described theirences that contribute most to development in a manner that wasthe development of strategic consistent with one of the three patterns. thinking tend to take place over a year or more and Improving Strategic require significant Thinking responsibility on the part of The study results have a number ofthe individual — usu-ally the implications for companies in theirperformance of a task that is efforts to improve the strategicmaterially new to that person. Commu nity Involve ment Politi cal Exposure Orga nizati onal (Str uct ure ) Ch ang e New Boss Scenario Evaluation Executive Payment Change Doing a Master Plan Evaluating an Acquisition Team and Mentored Observation Community Dialogu e Dialogue with External Parties Trade Organizations Education Being General Experience Board Interactions Consultants’ Questions must be highly individual because no two people will absorb the same experience in exactly the same way. This figure is a reproduction of the actual map created dur-ing interactions with one executive in the study who best exemplified this particular pattern of development.remember that the developis that any development programment of expertise in strategic . though.Leadership Pattern 3: The Completion of a Hierarchy of Challenges In this developmental pattern. thinking of their execu-tives. it’s crucial to important thing to remember. TheMoreover. and the arrows show how the different experiences (ovals) influence each other. During this time period. the upward direction of the red line (from left to right) indicates the individual’s increasing ability to think strategically.
Moreover. But. taken together. findings of the study was the tacit expectation that an executive would. think strategically upon becoming a CEO.thinking takes at least a decade. during which time many of those experiences must be continu-ally repeated.mit. Management development programs should identify specific experiences (spearheading a growth initiative. for instance) and target their inclusion in the careers of high-potential executives. all of a sudden. if companies want expertise in strategic thinking they must take the necessary steps to nurture this ability. With all this in mind. cross all four levels of interaction: personal.edu . interpersonal. organizational and environmental. the Include Strategic Thinking As a following approaches should benefit companies in their efforts to developFormal Component of the stra-tegic thinking of theirManagement Development Programs One of the most remarkable managers. must include frequent contact and immediate feedback). Although individual in na-ture. each experience should contain the necessary attributes (being mentored. Finally. clearly. for example. Require Executives to Develop the Strategic Thinking of Their Subordinates Because strategic thinking develops gradually over a 80 MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW SUMMER 2007 sloanreview. the experi-ences should be preceded by a briefing on strategy theory and vocabulary (if needed) to ensure that the executive understands key concepts that will help him obtain the maximum benefits from those experiences. such experiences should.
(monthly or quarterly. “The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning.) market information from another industry or the viewpoint of a “Developing Strategic Thought: Rediscovering the Art of Directionconstituency that is seldom heard). “Executive Leadership: A Practical Guide to Managing Complexity” (Arlington. professional Management.. consultants.M. no. E. with an emphasis on preparation: Long Range Planning 31. the study participants attributed little value to graduate professional programs. 44.” Management Decision 39. 3 (June 1998): 481-486. no. Virginia: thinking of the partici-pants and not necessarily that of the staff or Cason Hall & Co. no. diss. 2 (March/April 1992): 4-10. Zabriskie and A.B. Competency. and J. 4 (August 1983): 39-48. improvements in their strategic thinking. no. M. 6 (December 1991): 25-32. 3 (June 1986): 72-80. however subjectivelywhat are the different ways in which people absorb those determined? experiences to develop the ability to think strategically? Without adequate answers to these questions. Dissertation Abstracts International UMI No. companies will find it impractical for all their managers 1. Easterby-Smith and J. and P. the meet-ings should include Science 24. for example). Senge. L. 5 (October 1993): 103-110.E.” Long Range Planning 16. After all.” Long Range Planning 26. H. and E.” Long Range Planning 24. Some experts have ques-tioned responsibility as a part of an executive’s performance re-view:whether the topic should be taught at all — or at least whether it What projects and roles have you given your subordinates toshould be taught to managers. Essery.long period of time. D. Encourage Early Participation in Strategic Planning and Benchmarking knowledge. Dillard.M. 9 (May 1978): 934-948.B. Without thistheir executives. with subsidiaries.” Works Management 55. reviewing materials and thinking about specific questions that are 6. executives can also be encouraged to participate in strategic planning Huellmantel. Mintzberg. Liedtka. “Generating Strategic Thinking Through Multi-Level Teams.D. Bonn. During these sessions. and those meetings should have 5. What specific site freedom to act? And have your efforts resulted in noticeable experiences are important and how do they contribute? Moreover. no. Mason. for example.edu SUMMER 2007 MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 81 . when managers do undertake such programs.D. the Giving” (London: McGraw-Hill. sloanreview. “Developing Strategic Thinking. provide valuable input into manage- 4. Planning 19. content that expands people’s perspectives (for example. 1991). “Develop-ing Strategic Thinking in Senior with other organizations. “Developing Director and Ex-ecutive Competencies in Strategic Thinking. because they might be able to identify Reprint 48418.F.mit. specific aspects of strategic thinking that are lacking in indi-Copyright © Massachusetts Institute of Technology. however. Heracleous. executives can waste considerable time by attempting strategy development or implementation in inef-ficient or inappropriate REFERENCES ways. Goldman. As such. P. dialogue and debate. 3. with respect to the development of strategic thinking. discussion of vicarious experiences (perhaps by having experts mentor nov-ices) and assignments that broaden an individual’s perspective through observation. In addition. for example. I. Bates and J. local businesses. and because general work experiences and being mentored are two important experiences during this growth. H. has been any in-depth discussion of how individuals sufficient size. Maximize the Benefits of Strategic Planning Sessions Companies should hold strategic planning sessions on a regular basis Busi-ness Review 72. J.” Harvard ment development plans. Mintzberg. Thus.” Planning Review 20. it’s no wonder that schools have had trouble teaching strategy to students — and that many Activities These two experiences contribute significantly to imcompanies have difficulty developing the strategic thinking of portant procedural knowledge related to strategic thinking. and have your subordinates been given the requi-learn to think strategically in the first place. Staff members could. companies should include thisteach strategy to future leaders. develop their strategic thinking? Are these assignments ofhowever. community groups or small. no. Support Activities That Incorporate Experiential Learning Interest-ingly. 1 (January 1994): 107-114. 2007. “Becoming an Expert Strategic Thinker: The Learning Journey of Healthcare CEOs” (Ph. no. the firm wants to develop the strategic 7. 2. George Washington Univer-sity Graduate School of Education and Human Development. All rights reserved.” Long Range to be involved in every strategic planning activity. Often missing from the debate. N. “Strategic Thinking or Strategic Planning?” a high degree of process regularity. “Developing Strategic Thinking As a Core associations. 1995): 157-186. 1 (2001): 63-71. Clement. company should ensure that the participants (not the planning staff or“Strategic Thinking: Can It Be Taught?” Long Range Planning 31. 3181551. no. comparative Garratt (ed.” Management provided in advance. “Developing Strategic Thinking. “Mental Models. the curriculum should incorporate experience in addition to the teaching of theory. no. vidual executives. “Patterns in Strategy Formation. 1 outside consultants) perform the information synthesis and(February 1998): 120-129. through the inclusion of oppor-tunities to do strategic planning and benchmarking. 7 (2002): 54-57. no.L. no. interpretation. Of course. Hanford. Jacques and S.” in B. “Reflecting On Leadership. Davies.business schools and others interested in management superiors are in a key position to influence their sub-ordinates’ education and development have vigorously debated how best to development. 2005).. Nevertheless. E.
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