August 2018     Read time: six minutes

We live in an age of exponential change. Rapid innovation is disrupting and unseating incumbent products and industries, creating new frontiers and challenging nearly everything we know about business. Plotting a clear path to success has never been harder. Yet, for most organizations, the process of strategic planning has not substantially changed from a decade ago.


Intuitively, leadership teams know they must think differently to make better decisions today and anticipate the future. They need to apply a new lens to their strategic planning to help spot emerging competition, unmet needs, shifts in consumer trends and evolving employee expectations.

This quote by Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors reflects the enormous challenge CEO’s and their leadership teams are facing:

The automotive sector will change more in the next five years than the past 50.

This statement is true of most sectors, including yours. Today, the automotive sector is not only contending with traditional incumbents, but also outliers such as Dyson—yes, the vacuum company. Dyson realized their expertise in electric batteries could help them pivot into the auto sector, opening an entirely new revenue stream. The North American auto sector will also face new competition from Chinese automakers who, in 2019, will enter the US for the first time, flooding the market with new options for consumers. These are but two auto sector examples.

Summer is the perfect time to reflect, recharge and prepare a new approach for strategic planning and upcoming management retreats this fall. Here are seven things you can integrate into your next planning session to foster new ways of thinking, galvanize your leadership team, and make better decisions to ensure you survive and thrive well into the future.

Look outside your direct 
competition to spot outliers

Many CEOs and leadership teams we meet with have a solid understanding of their immediate competitors. They collect intelligence and data on key measures like market share, product attributes, pricing, operational performance and so forth. But most fail to consider the outliers. Emerging competition and disruptions from outside the immediate competitive set, typically due to advances in technology and shifts in consumer behaviours, are catching even the savviest leaders off guard.

As a pre-retreat assignment for your next strategic planning session, ask each management team member to identify three emerging consumer, competitor and industry disruptions. This warm-up exercise is an opportunity to shift the mindset away from the day-to-day toward future-focused trends, risks and opportunities.

Design a culture
of innovation

Focused, deliberate innovation can become the growth engine for business. Creating a culture of innovation does not happen by accident. It’s deliberate. Nor is one built without harnessing the power of your most powerful asset, your employees. Often we find that innovation exists in hidden corners of organizations, needing to be strategically extracted and parameters put in place to guide its focus.

As a management team, start by completing a culture scan. An evaluation that identifies the characteristics inherent in your organization’s culture and processes today. Then identify the characteristics needed to foster a culture of innovation and achieve your business goals. Where are the gaps? This is the first small step in painting a vivid picture of what your future culture and processes will need to look like to foster innovation. Try it at your next planning retreat or hire a professional to facilitate a culture-defining workshop.

Use research to remove
personal bias and unlock insights

We all bring our own biases to the boardroom. A personal view of the world, our organization, our customers, our competitors. As much as we try to put ourselves in the shoes of our customers, to anticipate their latent needs and pain points, we are not them. Consumer research, along with other data, increases certainty in decision making, reduces bias, improves customer experiences and mitigates risk.

Time after time we see leaders surprised by the insights derived from customer research and the resulting shifts in their strategies. Make sure your team has the critical research insights and trends to make better decisions to future-proof your organization.

At your next strategic planning session, ask yourselves a few key questions:

  • What verifiable evidence is supporting our leadership team’s decision making?
  • Who will our customers be in five years? How do they think and behave  differently from our present customers?
  • Are we working with data or translated insights? (There’s a difference.)
  • What are the hurdles preventing our non-customers from becoming customers?

The most important single thing is to focus obsessively on the customer. Our goal is to be earth’s most customer-centric company. – Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon

Examine if you are operations-centric
or consumer-centric?

The terms operations-centric and consumer-centric reflect how your business or institution makes decisions. Companies like Amazon operate using a consumer-centric model meaning they put the consumer at the centre of all decision making. In doing so they develop and grow their business to support the current and future needs and wants of customers, not the other way around. This leads to repeat business, loyalty and profit.

Whether B2B or B2C, becoming more customer-focused and, in time, consumer-centric is important. A consumer-centric model has not only become the preferred model but the expectation among consumers, particularly Millennials—your current and future customers and employees.

Introduce the subject of consumer-centricity at your next strategic planning session. What drives decision making in your company, operations or the consumer? Discuss.

Evaluate if your brand is
adding or detracting?

The discussion of brand is all too often not a focus within strategic planning sessions, but it should be. It is often relegated to marketing, because branding is typically misunderstood and nebulous, particularly among B2B organizations and institutions.

In exchange for a well-articulated and strategically positioned brand, businesses are rewarded with enormous brand value, the ability to charge premium pricing, loyalty and greater latitude when they make a misstep, among other things. As well, applying strategic forethought to brand building provides flexibility for future expansion, sale or IPO, and focuses spending to build maximum brand value.

A brand is NOT a logo or graphic or website. It is so much more. It align with your organization’s core values and purpose, and contribute to the advancement of your business goals and priorities. Ultimately your brand provides your audience with a set of expectations. Practically speaking, it provides a roadmap for how your organization behaves, communicates and delivers a consistent customer experience.

Now is a critical time to stand for something. To separate yourselves. Great modern brands not only talk the talk, they walk the walk. It should come as no surprise then that the most loved brands by Millennials are also considered the best places to work.

Add brand evaluation to your next strategic planning agenda. Here are some questions to get you started.

  • Do current brand perceptions align with our vision and goals? Do we have  research to support our hypothesis?
  • How is our brand positioned relative to competitors? Are there crowded clusters or gaps?
  • Where does our brand need to be positioned to drive future growth and  attract talent?
  • Do we need to conduct a professional brand audit?
    Brand equity can represent an enormous portion of a business’ value

Test your
vision

Your vision is the foundation to Future Proof your business in this rapidly changing world. The north star from which to guide your strategic roadmap. Often vision and core purpose are out of alignment with the present manifestation of the business, which prevents them from serving as an effective beacon for the future. The consequences of an ill-conceived vision are severe: cultural discord, confusion, inefficiency and even irrelevance.

Evaluate your vision at your next strategic planning session. Ask yourselves:

  • Does our vision and core purpose reflect where our business going?
  • Is it ambitious?
  • Is it compelling and memorable?
  • Is it specific and clearly understood?

Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. – Vision statement of outdoor apparel company, Patagonia

Shift to strategic planning
as a journey

Long gone are the days of staid three- or five-year plans. The pace of change is more rapid today than at any other point in history and will only accelerate. Business and institutions alike must behave nimbly and embrace probabilities in their strategic planning, shifting from an annual exercise to an ongoing strategy journey. A journey with frequent recurring discussions and plan evolution.

A few key questions to test your strategy at your next planning session:

  • Is our strategy rigid or does it embrace uncertainty?
  • Does our strategy put us (and keep us) ahead of trends?
  • Does our strategy rest on unique and compelling insights?
  • Is there an action plan?