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The Three Stages of

Results-Driven Strategy Creation


I have a slide I’ve used for more than 30 years. My team calls it the “cloud model” because there’s a squiggly cloud graphic in the lower left-hand side labeled “current state” and another in the upper right-hand corner labeled “future state.” What connects them is your strategy.

Sounds simple, right?

Well….it can be. But it takes a lot of planning, focus, and the proper follow-through to make it real.

A rigorous strategic thinking process has three stages: pre-planning, creation, and execution. But in our experience, most strategy projects focus on the middle section, resulting in snazzy reports that don’t generate actual results.

Here at WhiteWater, we use the acronym ACE’M to outline the stages of impactful strategies:

  • Assess: Pre-planning to ensure your strategy rests on a rock-solid foundation

  • Create: The deep work of making choices and articulating priorities

  • Execute: Actioning your strategy to make it real

  • Measure: Reviewing your actual results against your projected goals

After all, if there’s no change in the end, what was all that effort for?

In this post, we break down the first stage of the process, pre-planning, so you can start to prepare for your most effective, impactful strategic thinking process yet.

But first! Ask, who?

Before you dig in, spend a little time thinking about the key participants in your strategy process. There are a couple of key groups to consider: who should be involved in the strategy creation process, and who will be needed to drive the strategy forward?

Everybody involved in pre-planning should be involved in the actual strategy creation process. We like to see a diagonal slice of the organization represented to ensure not just your management but also mid-level and frontline people are there. It’s essential to have the people responsible for execution involved. Who do you need to engage to create commitment and increase the likelihood of follow-through?

Step One: Pre-Planning

This foundational stage lays the essential groundwork for the project, so don’t skimp on it. This research phase is the time to gather the inputs and intel that will shape your strategy creation.

1. Start with SWOTs

To begin, have everyone who’s going to be involved in the creation process independently complete SWOT analyses to get an internal inventory of your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

Do the SWOTs from several perspectives, starting with your customers and markets: how are you performing in their eyes? Next, assess your operational performance. Third, look at your financial performance.

Once the SWOT analyses are complete, get everyone together to review the collective results and discuss different perspectives.

It’s a prime opportunity to get alignment but also get different perspectives out on the table. It’s also a time to push back, to ask of each statement, how do we know this to be true? Pre-planning stage is a time to take off the rose-colored glasses, to see the world as it is, not as you wish it would be.

You want there to be arm wrestling, for the conversation to feel a little prickly. It shouldn’t be easy. Creating effective strategy often fails because organizations are unwilling to challenge their own existing thinking…the mental models, assumptions, beliefs, and perceptions that underlie their current and emerging strategy.

This brings me to the second part of pre-planning:

2. Get your customer’s view.

It’s essential to look outside of your organization to create your strategy. Remember how I said myopia was one of the most significant risks? There’s an easy way to protect against it being a big navel-gazing exercise: talk to your customers.

After all, this is the most crucial group to your success.

And yet, when we ask our clients when they’d last held an in-depth conversation with their customers about something other than a specific transaction, sale or project, almost none have. This is risky because, in most organizations, there’s perceived received wisdom about customer choice, and it’s almost always wrong.

Your customers will draw you a map: here’s where you’re at, here’s what I need you to be. Note the gap. That’s your positioning in the marketplace. The real home runs come when your customers have an unmet need that you can fulfill.

3. Do a market scan.

The third leg of the pre-planning phase is a broad-based market analysis. Look at the markets in which you currently sell and those you are considering entering. It may be new verticals or geographic areas, or new product lines. It may be a new customer group. Explore the data around potential opportunities for specific target audiences or new demographics.

  • What markets are growing?

  • Which ones are stable or shrinking?

  • What’s your market share or share of wallet? What’s possible?

Good market data sources include industry publications and reports or even news stories from reputable media. Economic development agencies can be very helpful. And many state, provincial, and even federal governments have valuable data.

While the market analysis will vary based on your location, your company size, and your sector, in general, you’ll want to look for trends and potential growth areas.

Next Steps

Giving your team six to eight weeks for pre-planning is sufficient for most small to medium-sized businesses. Invest in this foundational stage to set a rock-solid foundation for strategy creation work

In our next post: I dig into step 2 of the process, creating the strategy. I’ll cover who needs to be in the room, how to structure your sessions, what you can DIY, and when to bring in outside support.

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