Author: Janet Featherstone
Posted: September 16, 2016
Strategy seems to have this mystical aura surrounding it, but it is nothing more than applying some really deep (and perhaps objectively facilitated) thinking about five areas of focus.
At the point of creation, a new business has a strategy. There will come a time when that model is not as attractive as it originally was. Competitors may have entered the space, or upped their game, customers might be more demanding, margins may start coming under pressure, and you as the business owner might be working 12 hour days.
That's the time when you need to have a formal strategy workshop. You need to think through what you are doing, how you are doing it, why you are doing it and what are its benefits. That's not going to happen when you're moving at breakneck speed trying to keep your head above water.
If your business is to succeed in this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (vuca) world, then it must understand exactly where it plays in the market that you have chosen, and most importantly, how it intends to succeed in this space.
The challenge that most business owners face is that there is so much pressure to put out fires that very little attention is granted to the spark of industry-defining ideas. If you want to stay in business long-term, making the time to reflect and think deeply about the direction and competitiveness of your business is nothing short of essential.
Every business operates within a far larger matrix. We are affected – positively and negatively – through external events over which we have little or no control. Currency fluctuations, brexit, trade agreements, economics, the political environment, tax rates, legislation and a host of other influences that impact our business environment.
In a strategic planning workshop, at least a morning needs to be invested in understanding how these external factors impact the business. A pestleid analysis can be undertaken, and this follows the process of evaluating the political, economic, social, technological, legal, environmental, international and demographic landscapes.
This process is not a conversation, but rather an in-depth analysis of each of the pestleid factors, each of which is broken down into detail. Each detailed factor is ranked in terms of probability and impact. High probability and high impact factors are firmly placed on the firm's radar, and scenario planning is completed for these events. Low probability but high impact events are allocated to accountable individuals for observation, and might be scenario planned depending on their severity.
By the end of this process, each person in the room must have a sound idea as to the context in which the business is operating, and what external factors the business is likely to experience within the next year.
Through scenario planning, each individual will also understand what the best course of action will be for the organisation should any of the high-impact scenarios come to be, and will be equipped to play their role in taking those actions in order to minimise business disruption.
The only person who can tell you what your customers want and need is your customer. It is a fatal mistake to believe that anyone in your organisation is qualified to speak on behalf of your most valuable assets.
In this conversation, you are unpacking what it is that your customers want from you. But a note of caution that is magnificently phrased by henry ford when he said: "if i'd asked my customers what they want, they would have told me a faster horse".
Remember that your customers can and will generally only tell you what they want and need given the same operating conditions for both yourselves and themselves. And that's ok, because it defines the foundational sandpit in which you are operating right now.
Customers can tell you how your service ranks in comparison to competitors, how competitive your pricing structures are, their satisfaction with your sales process, how well your product performs, their experience of your service, and any gaps that might be sitting in your blind spot. This gives you the 'as is' situation and is an invaluable starting point.
It is important not to become so fixated on your competitors that you lose sight of your own direction, but you certainly want to know what your competitors are up to, lest you get blindsided by their actions.
Ideally, you would arrive at the strategy session understanding the market shares of your various competitors. In addition, you would know the share of wallet that they attract, and compare this to the share of market. Variances between the two indicate a pricing strategy that may deserve closer inspection. If accessible, a study of the competitors' financial statements is never wasted as this indicates industry growth rates, profit rates, margin rates and the like for comparative purposes.
Then, a subjective analysis can be completed, but this can be done during the workshop. Here, the focus is on the offering and the softer skills that your competitors bring to the table.
- How strong are their customer relationships?
- How well do they sell against your products?
- How are they achieving their growth?
- What do they do particularly well where your performance is sub-par?
- What do you do particularly well, that outshines them?
The more heads that think through these issues, the more objective the information becomes.
What you'd like to achieve at the end of this session is a list of things that your customers insist you have in your offer, ranked against your competitors. Then, you'll have a list of 'order winning' value added offerings, also ranked against your competitors. You'll be able to see where you are performing better, and worse, than your rivals.
This is the time to review what your organisation does particularly well, that when combined in the larger context and when compared with that of your competitors, can create a meaningful and valuable differential for your organisation.
What you are seeking here is something that your business does that your competitors cannot match. Often, these are the things that become ingrained in your culture. They are not a process, they are not a pricing point, but rather are embedded into the way you do business. Think apple, think design and functionality. Think ferrari, think performance and exclusivity. When i think of your company, what should the association be?
If there is nothing that your business does that can differentiate it, then this becomes the part of the strategy workshop where you decide what skills your organisation needs to develop or acquire in order for it to effectively compete.
There are a number of frameworks that are useful at this juncture, but all of them ask what your organisation can uniquely bring to the market, and how long you believe this uniqueness is achievable. If your competitors are able to replicate your uniqueness quickly, then your competitive advantage can be eroded before its paid for itself. Where little differentiation exists in a market, the common point upon which to compete becomes price. Margins erode in the effort to win business. Either differentiate, or be prepared to become a low-cost producer.
Creating a unique space
This is where strategy becomes as much art as it is skill. The real end-game of strategy is to create a space that completely disrupts your industry, and where your organisation sets the rules of the game. Playing by rules set by others means that you are always watching and waiting, instead of setting the pace and direction.
Thinking of a realistic opportunity takes incredible focus, deep thought, creativity and imagination. At times, new industries are created where the borders of current industries exist so this is a good place to look first.
What happens after all is said and done?
The chosen strategy should be captured in an executive summary of no longer than 2 to 3 pages. Anything longer creates confusion and apathy by those who are expected to wade through reams of inputs in order to reach the implementation section.
The chosen strategy must be presented to and worked through in a workshop with those who will play any part in its implementation. Ideally, small teams will be tasked with the implementation of certain aspects of the whole picture.
Remember that the contents of that strategy must form the conversation point of the executives from that point forward. If all you talk about is profit, profit is what the business will chase. If you focus on strategic delivery in each of your conversations, the business will deliver. And, when you're tired of talking about the strategy, you've likely only done 10% of the job needed, so keep talking strategy.
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