From small questions to big ideas

In the process of strategic business planning, the search for powerful ideas can be fast-tracked with one unconventional question.

In several previous articles, I have written about the importance of powerful ideas in business. Today I am exploring where and how we can find these ideas and the insights that give rise to them.

This is, perhaps, the most difficult part of the strategic process. Where the search for ideas is conducted via the conventional SWOT analysis (SWOT standing for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats), it generally fails. This failure leads to plans that are mundane, for it is the big ideas that ultimately create meaningful difference and make sense of things. In their absence, we engage in a lot of activity that keeps us busy but we lack focus, coherence and energy.

When this happens, we question the usefulness of the whole strategic planning process and we no longer see it as the central, driving activity that it must be. Rather than drawing on the wisdom of the whole organisation, we look elsewhere for inspiration and we place our trust in unreliable strategic decision-making processes – we become opportunistic, we place too much faith in the chief executive's judgement, or we delegate strategy to consultants.

When we understand the critically important role that forensics must play in informing the planning steps, we can focus on changes to the SWOT process that will lead to the discovery of powerful ideas. We must go beyond SWOT to SOWOT. Then we can start to trust the strategic planning process again, in the knowledge that it will deliver long-term success.

The ‘so what?’ question (and several quite rude versions of it) first arose in my office some years ago in response to frustration with all the verbiage being presented to me by clients, and sometimes by my own analysts, in the course of preparing business plans. Endless, mind-numbing SWOT analyses of the economy, of markets, of the industry, of strengths and weaknesses, culture and values. So what, so what, so what? Tell me something interesting for goodness' sake! Why is that fact interesting? What is the relevance of this? How does that piece of information help us to make more money?

Most SWOT analyses did not survive that brutal questioning; we were often left with nothing to work with. What a relief! Then, with the table bare, back to blank, we could ask ‘has anyone got an idea we can really use?’ Slowly, the following diagram emerged that helped us to systematically search for such ideas:


For every 1000 facts there were, perhaps, 100 interesting facts; for every 100 of these there were perhaps 10 insights. For every ten insights there might be one or two powerful ideas. ‘So what?’ was the question that enabled you to move up the hierarchy with some sense of logic. It was tough, it still required the involvement of people with intelligence and imagination, but it worked.

The powerful ideas, when we found them, were often not what we expected, and we did not always find them through predictable sources. Quite often, the big idea had to do with capability rather than ambition – with utilising particular qualities that had been developed by the business over a long period of time. We called these things ‘good habits’ rather than strengths because they were things the organisation was good at and had a tendency to repeat successfully. We acquired a lot more respect for, and interest in, the long history of the organisation, because it was in the history that we discovered the good habits. In this context, the lack of interest in the organisation’s past displayed by some chief executives impatient to ‘get on with it’ seemed rather foolish.

We also found that it was helpful to broadcast questions about good habits fairly widely. A production supervisor or sales representative who has been with the organisation for 15 years can sometimes offer an insight about the business that becomes the key to a big idea. Yet such people are not normally asked to contribute to the strategic planning process. We came to appreciate that good planning involved tapping into, and building on, the wisdom of the entire organisation – wisdom that had been accumulated over perhaps 20 or 50 years. This approach acknowledged that businesses should be learning organisations that build their success on a growing store of knowledge.

The task of finding insights and powerful ideas can be delegated to a SOWOT team – a small group of executives that includes a couple of rising stars as well as some old hands. Given six to eight weeks, a small budget, and perhaps the assistance of an external facilitator, this group brings the result of their search to the planning team forums. Here they present ideas that have a ‘sign’ on them – that answer the ‘so what?’ question strongly and point in a particular direction.

You can always tell when you have captured a powerful idea; the group is at once excited and more relaxed. The idea makes sense of things. It can be built on – it has legs. It is a stretch but it is doable. It sounds like a lot of fun. There is a feeling of inevitability about it. Let’s do it!

Christopher Tipler is a Melbourne-based management advisor and author of Corpus RIOS – The how and what of business strategy. His web site contains more material on this and related topics.


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