Masters Alliance Competing to Win

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Preparing for Strategic Combat

By J. Allen | Updated 2023 | Published June 13, 2017

Quickly Identify Opportunities for Competitive Advantage

Do you remember market demand? Are you ready for strategic combat? Has your team, collectively and individually, gained sufficient insight into your customers, customers’ customers, suppliers, and strategic partners to identify their problems, opportunities, and strategic decision dilemmas? If not, how do you expect to have the insight for strategies that will actually create market demand?

The Evidence is Clear

Let’s look at two different strategic approaches. One is plainly more sustainable and more consistently effective.

Pursuing growth for growth’s sake; cutting costs to defend profits; changing players to shake things up; innovating for image and to be first…


Capitalizing on a unique, in-depth understanding of the entire demand chain—one that uniquely fulfills the needs of all business partners; identifying clear value propositions…

The latter is the key to strategic, sustainable, competitive success. Exciting market-changing strategies involve making the right choices up-front: doing the insightful prework and involving all strategy participants in the process.

Have each of you stopped and lived a day in your customers’ lives? What exactly does their experience with your firm look like, up close and personal? Take another look at your customers’ customers, your suppliers, and your strategic partners. Gain even more insight for strategies that will actually create market demand!

Move Beyond “Strategic Planning”

It happened again. The summer planning season snuck up on you. And who could blame you? It’s not even the Fourth of July! That’s right—it’s getting close to that time of year when many organizations ask their leadership team to sequester themselves from the distractions of running the day-to-day aspects of your business. There’s good news, though—you already have your list of who will be part of the strategic planning process. Sales and marketing, technology, new product development, finance, everyone in the C-suite…all the usual suspects.

You can see the boardroom sessions already. Mary, your head of finance, will sit next to you; and Andrew, the head of IT, will sit next to her. Barry, the sales team leader, will try to sit closest to the door. That way, he can make a quick exit if he is saved from participating via a “higher priority” call from the field. (Higher priority than strategic planning? How is that even possible? These leaders should feel grateful for being able to participate in such a prestigious activity!)

The more you think about it, the less optimistic you become. As you look at the participant list, you see it’s the same leadership team that developed the last strategic plan. The same plan that has resulted in a solid “meets expectations” from the few meetings you’ve had with your board of directors so far. You’ve met your goals, but the winner in you wants to excel! Not only that, but you already know that expectations for next year will rise… 

How can you possibly expect different results from putting the same people in the same room? How can you increase the excitement level of your team so that they have new and different ideas? Change the venue? Change the people? Change the process? All of these are valid ways to amp up your planning process. But you know going to a nifty off-site location and adding some high-potential junior leaders to the mix won’t be enough to get distinctively different results.

It’s tempting to throw money at the problem by hiring a Big Three consulting firm to strategize for you, but you know that will only perpetuate the problem rather than help you solve it. You need a new approach—one that will get substantially better results, create enthusiasm in your team members and their employees, and eventually deliver better value to your customers and shareholders.

It’s Pervasive

Here’s the good news: You aren’t alone! In fact, Masters Alliance has worked with leaders like you for three decades to solve this exact problem. Surprisingly, it’s not only a problem inherent in large, mature, and successful organizations—it dogs most organizations from time to time.

Successful organizations grow comfortable in their success. You may have carefully managed and measured your way to efficiency and tapped all the low-hanging fruit of opportunity. Your team has been so internally focused it’s lost some of the unique attributes that come with a hunger for greatness. The edgy pace of your team has worn down to a comfortable, predictable rhythm. It’s time for a change. You know it, and you are certain your team knows it too.

Rather than respond with the predictable reorganization, realignment of resources, and reassignment of responsibilities, look beyond the faces at the table in that planning session. Consider the possibility your leadership team can come up with a new, exciting, energized plan!

The Power is in Strategic Thinking

First, start differentiating between strategic planning and strategic thinking. Strategic planning is the process of documenting the outcome of strategic thinking. This means giving your team the opportunity to think strategically ahead of the planning process, setting the tone for new ideas, and not falling into the trap of trying to solve the same problem year after year.

Imagine your team members being free to dream and inspire each other without the pressure of a documented deliverable. Set the expectation for creativity, fact-based insight, and intuitive discussions. Give your team the time it needs to consume new data and create and digest new ideas. Break your old habit of sending pre-reads that don’t get read. Establish preplanning discussion sessions to swap ideas in a truly judgment-free zone. Encourage and reward new thoughts; discourage the same old gripes and tired ideas. Give your leaders license to bring up something new—and set the tone with a new idea of your own!

If your company is under pressure from a market-leading competitor, prioritize obtaining, analyzing, and discussing front- line-level intel. Here’s a simple example: one of our clients monitored the number of cars in a manufacturing competitor’s employee parking lots; this helped verify some unclear industry production volume data and trends. I’m guessing your sales team has been itching to share some great ideas on how to compete in the marketplace. Imagine unfiltered access to those ideas! We’ve seen great ideas bubble up from those team members who spend most of their days interacting with customers.

Test Discovery with Data

Use your business intelligence resources to their full potential. We  are awash with data, but now is not the time to give up   on distilling that data into meaningful information. Make sure you have access to analytic intel on your customers, suppliers, competitors, and market. As you scan the data, don’t get lost in the more precise points you’d use for performance reporting.

Instead, pull back and look for trends: In what direction has  the market moved over the last year, or five years? What are the implications for your organization in the next two to three years? Are there material impacts of your business cycles that need consideration? How does this align with your team’s first- hand strategic discovery work?

Beware of depending too much on internal data. If your leaders don’t believe in its validity, they’ll discount the power of the information. Poll your leaders about the accuracy of the under- lying data you use to report KPIs. Drill down to the main point so you can all get on board with how you’ll measure success. Try not to fall into the trap of “same improvement as last year.” Raise your gaze to clarify your vision of the future.

Do a STWO, Not a SWOT

Look at the information you use to prepare for your thinking and planning sessions. Preparing a SWOT analysis is the stalwart of many companies’ planning preparations. Take a closer look at who is assembling and synthesizing the data for you:

  • Are they using refreshed and objective customer, stakeholder, or competitor information to identify your strengths and weaknesses?
  • How do they assess threats from competitors, market conditions, regulations, or other forces?
  • Who is recommending your opportunities? Are they generic or custom-built for your organization’s growth plan?
  • Was the most recent SWOT analysis accurate? Did it predict something that actually happened?

We recommend you rearrange the usual SWOT method. Do a STWO—instead of following your strengths with weaknesses, follow with threats! Think of it this way: if your team was preparing for real hand-to-hand combat, wouldn’t you be more likely to focus on measuring up to your battle situation and opponent’s threats first? Then, your weaknesses would be more accurate and your opportunities clearer.

Here’s a note of warning, though: make sure to validate the threat with as much data and intel as you can before you focus on it. We’ve seen instances where one large personality in a room incorrectly portrays a threat (either as too strong or too insignificant), which distracts the team from the real work— effective, impactful strategic thinking!

Be Prepared, Be Encouraged

These are just a few of the readiness remedies we’ve implemented with our clients over the years. There’s no doubt that if you improve the preparation for your strategic planning sessions, you’ll get better outcomes. Next, we’ll discuss setting the actual strategy—but that relies on having a well prepared and open-minded team. Now is the time to set these wheels in motion! You can’t wait!

Take Action

Almost all our client executive teams are greatly surprised as to how much room there is for improvement in their strategic thinking. For one of our clients, an international “wellness company,” this strategic thinking approach led to: refocused vision and vision descriptions; concentrated strategic efforts for every business unit and support area; market and organizational alignment; and intentional acquisition and divestiture activities. Informed, decided, acted – and the beat goes on.

Our partnership model allows for leaders to rewire their brains in a safe and real-world environment. Instead of using “theoretical case studies,” we work with clients to solve actual problems their companies are facing. We help clients identify and move quickly on opportunities for competitive advantage. It’s the combination of a real world focused view and an action based learning model that helps senior leaders and other leaders, think differently about the basics of strategically leading an organization.

We Can Help

We can help bring these principles to life with your organization – we provide the tools and experience to help your team step up and take action. We’ve helped dozens of our clients implement this new way of thinking in their organizations.

Masters Alliance is a 30-year strategic management consulting firm that has helped more than 130 client organizations in 21 industries in 13 countries gain a competitive advantage in their market. We help organizations develop and implement unique business approaches that work – faster than our clients ever thought possible.

We help clients achieve significant performance gains from a breakthrough understanding of their customers, patients, clients and markets.