There never seems to be enough time to think, especially between now and year end. Kids are back in school, extracurricular activities are kicking into full gear, the holidays will be upon us and we are challenged to achieve our goals by year end.

But between now and year-end is a great time to be thinking - strategically that is. Not that this time of the year should be the only time we think strategically but this is the time of year that most companies plan and budget. Any organization or business unit should ask and answer some of the following questions related to the next 3, 5 or 10 years:

  • What business(es) will we be in?
  • What industries will we serve?
  • What products/services will we provide?
  • What will be our overarching goal?
  • How will we be distinct and what will be our differentiation strategy?
  • What will make our company an employer of choice with potential recruits?

One of the challenges many organizations face is getting those involved in strategy development to have the same strategic conversation at the same time. Strategic thinking models can help -- so groups can have a conversation about the same strategic elements.

One strategic challenge is how the company will differentiate its products, services and relationships. One model I utilize in client strategy sessions is a marketplace differentiation matrix out of the book "Best Laid Plans" by Alan Weiss. 

The model helps your organization identify its current or future market differentiation in products, services and relationships. If used to describe your company's current differentiation, you would place your products, services and relationships in the appropriate columns to highlight where your current capabilities and advantages are. It can also be used as a visioning tool to "forecast" the products, services and relationships you will have in a future period of time and the level of differentiation you expect.

Examples of "Competitive" Relationship building system might be a department store's charge account service -- since all competitive department stores have it and none of the stores likely have an advantage because of the charge accounts. An "Advantage" service might be UPS Ground Delivery Service (vs. the Post Office or Fedex) since they seem to have the edge on ground shipping. A "Dominance" word processing product might be Microsoft Word since most business word processing users consider it the standard.

Although we would normally think about this tool for use at a company or enterprise level, it can also be used for a division, business unit or department. For example, an accounting or financial department of a corporation will have products/deliverables (financial reports), services (providing analytical detail of transactions/accounts) and relationships (operations, CEO, etc.). For the accounting department, "competitive" may mean that the product, service or relationship is comparable to a competitor. "Advantage" may mean having an edge over the competitor and "dominance" may mean that it is a breakthrough product, service or relationship compared to a competitor.

Some additional strategic thinking tools are as follows:

  • Portfolio Analysis - Matrix analysis of products/services based on growth rate and competitive position
  • Stakeholder Analysis - Considers major stakeholders (investors, lenders, customers, suppliers, employees, etc.) and their capability for providing to the organization as well as their expectations in return.
  • Force Field Analysis - Analyzes the Driving Forces and Restraining Forces in the pursuit of a future vision or goal
  • Life Cycle Analysis - Analysis of life cycle stage of a line of business, product or service (emergence, growth, maturity or decline)

Strategic thinking or development of strategy and vision should focus on "what" the company will deliver, produce or provide. The tactics and implementation focus on "how" the strategy will be delivered and implemented. Tactics usually involve some significant decisions such as building or buying new plant capacity, public or private funding of growth, acquisitions or divestitures, etc.

Strategic thinking (the "what") should always precede tactical decision making and planning (the "how"). As simplistic as the statement seems, it is actually quite challenging for many people in organizations, large and small, since they operate more in a tactical mode than a strategic thinking mode on an everyday basis.

Vision and strategy cannot be realized without action and implementation. Those implementing need to be clear on the direction of an initiative being implemented and how it will support the company strategy. I see so many tactical planning teams who have "initiative burnout" because they've lived through initiatives without a strong strategic link that failed and were replaced by another initiative of the month©.

So take the time to think, strategically that is. The cost of that thinking time now will be minimal compared to 1) the organizational benefit of a good strategy or 2) the cost of failed tactics because they are not linked to a strategy.

"Strategic thinking is a process to define the ends and to find the boundaries. Shaping that thinking into a strategy is truly an art."

© Michael R. Goodfriend, Goodfriend & Associates, Inc., 2002

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