Carl von Clausewitz first said, “no strategy ever survived the first contact with the enemy”
It was true in war, and is equally true in business, the only real difference is in the human cost.
That said, not having a strategy is akin to setting off on a holiday, not knowing where you are going, not having any maps, and not knowing if you need to be on a train, in a car, a plane, or if indeed the unknown destination is just around the corner, close enough to walk.
Added to this uncertainty is the observation I have made over many years that having a logical, well developed and resourced strategy, that accommodates the commercial and competitive environment is the easy part, the hard part, the one for which 9/10 points is reserved, is implementation, adjustment and renewal of the strategy.
So, to road test a strategy, I have a list of 8 questions I typically pose to my clients:
- What are the opportunities you see that are not apparently seen by your current and potential competitors?. Often this is not only a function of the innovation capability as it relates to really new stuff, but, as articulated by Marcel Proust, “the real act of discovery is not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.” Apple did not discover the MP3 player, but they certainly saw the potential of the technology through new eyes.
- What are you the “best” at? No longer is being as good as everyone else good enough, you need to be distinctive, differentiated in some way that is meaningful to customers.
- Where do you look for ideas? If you only look for ideas in your current domain, you are severely limiting yourself to incremental change. Post-it-notes came from a failed glue experiment in 3M labs. The failed “semi sticky” stuff finding its way onto paper tabs used by the pastor in a local St Paul church to highlight his place during sermons. The rest is history.
- If you went out of business tomorrow, who would miss you, and why? I first saw this question posed by Jim Collins in his seminal “Good to Great” book. Answering it focuses the attention on how you add value, and to whom. In the event that the answer to the question is “nobody”, you have a problem. Similarly, if the answer is “company X” but only for a short time till they can secure an alternative, you still have a problem.
- What is it about your past that shapes your future? Our history shapes us all, so understanding the historical “why” things are done the way they are, is a key to changing them when necessary.
- Do you believe all customers are equal, and they are always right? If you do, and it is not uncommon, you are most certainly not allocating your limited available resources to where there is the potential to generate the best return. Years ago as marketing manager in an FMCG business I found pockets of customers who were serial complainers, consuming inordinate amounts of resource. Pretty quickly it became obvious that they were complaining for a combination of the attention and “freebies” that a complaint brought. Politely, I suggested that our competitor may be more willing to accommodate them, I was no longer of that mind, and the problem went away, to my competitor, who never worked it out.
- Are you effectively building and leveraging the varied capabilities of all your employees?. Businesses without people are just shells, people make them work. A former manufacturing client of mine discovered by accident that one of his shop floor operators made the most intricate abstract metal fabrications as a hobby and source of some cash at the local market. From eastern Europe, his English was very limited, but it turned out he had been trained as a toolmaker and welder in an armaments plant in the 80’s before the wall fell. Recognising the potential, his job was completely changed, and the company paid for English tutoring for him on company time. Suffice to say the ROI was enormous.
- Are you learning and changing quicker than those around you?. Change, along with death and taxes, are the only certainties in life. If you are not changing faster than the competitive environment in which you operate, then you are being left behind by someone.
Each of these questions can lead to detailed and useful discussions that can contribute substantially not just to the articulation of strategy, but to the means by which it will be implemented, measured, and altered in response to the reality of the marketplace.