Four Steps to Create a Strategy in an Uncertain Environment.
We live in uncertain times, it is obvious. The Covid-19 pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine have all caused unprecedented disruptions over the last few years. And the chaos is not likely to end soon. Companies face many challenges, and it is nearly impossible to plan for their future. This volatile environment demands a new strategy.
Is it worth trying to predict what is unpredictable? Uncertainty can be a source of risk but also opportunity. If handled correctly, uncertainty can allow organizations to expand beyond their existing business and possibly in unexpected directions.
These magic words are “handled correctly.” To transform a world full of uncertainty into one of possibility takes a shift in perspective and a different mindset from business leaders. Companies need a new approach to strategy development. It involves looking beyond what the company can do and imagining what it can do. Then, doing what is necessary to make it possible, even if it means going against established patterns and assumptions.
- It is crucial to have a clear customer view when designing a strategy. What do your clients want? Instead of creating endless customer profiles, companies need to consider each client’s wants. This is the “job to do,” as Taddy Hall and Karen Dillon stated.
- It is equally important to involve the whole organization in strategy development. This is not a task that a single corporate strategy team can do. Companies should instead draw upon the flexibility of an adaptable company to generate ideas and find solutions. It is essential to have the right skills at the right places within an organization. However, interactions between people are more important than individuals.
- The process of revising and developing strategy should continue. The outcome you desire to achieve is what military strategists refer to as the commander’s intent. After that, the system should be continuously revised and adjusted. The goal of an army context may be to conquer a hill. However, the strategy for reaching that goal is fluid. For example, the process is not to cross the bridge and take the mountain. The bridge may be gone by the time you reach it. Your path to achieving your goal must change to reflect the realities of the ground. In the same way, businesses should not set their goals in advance but define them. Instead, they should draw on the knowledge they have gained along the way and the collective genius of the company.
Companies can thrive in a rapidly changing, fast-paced, and increasingly global marketplace by using this new strategy. Based on my experience in supporting companies, I recommend a four-step approach.
1. Find the big question.
First, you need to ask the right question. This is the question your strategy will attempt to answer. Jerry Porras and Jim Collins talk about big hairy, audacious goals. I enjoy thinking about big fuzzy, bold questions.
Your business should have a vision that expands its value, and that is the big question. It’s not only permissible but encouraged to dream. Customers’ problems and wishes are a crucial source of inspiration. These desires change all the time. Instead of predicting what customers want, it is better to ask them about their problems and frustrations and then work tirelessly to solve those problems. For new ideas, you can also ask your employees, investors, local governments, communities, and, naturally, your employees.
Sometimes the ideas you are looking for may already exist, but it is possible to dismiss them as too far from current operations. Recently, I led a consulting project with a large international airline. For years, they had known that customer demand was more fluid and volatile than it used to be. Due to the limited flexibility that major airlines have, the industry’s flights are generally scheduled with only two fixed schedules per year. Instead of finding a solution to the problem, such as offering one or two more flight schedules per year, we asked the radical question: “How do we offer flights on demand wherever and whenever a customer wishes to fly?”
On-demand flights were not a new idea. It had been discussed on several occasions previously but was dismissed because it was too far from the company’s core business and existing capabilities. The airline is known for regular flights on fixed schedules, just like any other major airline. Many people knew that on-demand flights could create new value. The question of how to make it happen was too complex, too complicated, and too bold for the current mindset of the airline.
2. Reduce it.
Next, you can break down the strategic question into more minor questions that relate to different aspects of your business or operations. This will allow you to anchor your strategy-devising efforts within the company. This also allows you to draw inspiration from outside of your industry. These brainstorming exercises, such as the one described by Hal Gregersen, can be beneficial. The emphasis here is on asking new questions and not searching for answers.
We ran the big question through various functional teams of the company to find out what they thought. This included crew scheduling, network management, crew scheduling, etc. They often replied to our suggestion of on-demand flights with “No way!” We asked them why. We were surprised to learn that they told us the details of what an airline needed to do to make it possible.
Do you see the trick? Instead of trying to win teams over, ask them why they don’t believe it is possible. It’s easier for people to answer this question, and often they have other ideas that you didn’t know about. Even better, it’s fun to take an idea everyone believes is absurd and go for it. This is how creativity comes alive.
This exercise resulted in a collection of sub-questions grouped into subject areas. One sub-question that came out of the discussion about on-demand flights was: How can we spot patterns in demand for flights and adjust capacity and prices accordingly? To put it another way, how can the company move the various activities related to yield management — without the which on-demand flight would not be possible from a business perspective — up to the next level.
3. Get creative.
Next, you will need to answer each sub-question. Then you can start brainstorming ideas and strategizing. You no longer need to think about the sub-questions, adjust them or ask questions if they are missing. Instead, you look for strategic ideas. Inspiration can come from both within and outside the organization. Look at top performers in your industry.
This was especially useful when working with an airline. No external examples were available for the strategic question of offering on-demand flight services. This was because none of the competitors provided such a service. We found many instances when we examined the sub-questions. Many young companies were able to forecast customer demand and adjust prices accordingly for other transportation modes, like buses, in yield management. Inspiration also came from different industries. Today’s fashion industry is fast-paced and renews its collections 12 times per year. This contrasts with the regular spring/summer/fall/winter schedules that were once the norm (like those used by the airline industry).
4. Find the best option.
Finally, determine which of the strategic options presented in the previous step is most effective in addressing each sub-question. We recommend that you first decide what success looks like for your process, then compare the new solution to the current one. Once the alternative solution is superior to the current one, you can abandon the old method. This should be done not only once but every time the market changes.
Your strategy can suffer if you continue to challenge existing solutions. Ask yourself these questions about each step: Does this contribute to our true value proposition?” Are we able to do this? This is the point: You should only do those things that you can answer both questions. You can either outsource or acquire everything else or start your own business.
The sub-question about improving the airline’s yield management was answered by realizing that the company could significantly enhance this area by working closely with a retail travel startup with exceptional capabilities in forecasting demand and anticipating how airlines would respond to pricing and capacity. In reality, the startup was a competitor to the airline in selling airline tickets. Therefore, the best strategic option was to buy a portion of the startup and outsource some of its yield management for on-demand flights. The airline eventually delegated several yield management-related activities and a wide range of exciting developments based upon artificial intelligence (AI) to its new partner.
Take a look at the skies.
Companies often get too focused on their capabilities when developing strategies. They focus too much on what they do well and could do better. We encourage companies to look up, be creative, and explore even the most absurd ideas. You might be surprised at how profitable a statement that you thought was impossible or too expensive suddenly becomes feasible.