Post by Patricia Hewitt, contributing Women On Business writer
Welcome back to our discussion on best practices around strategy execution (if you missed Part 1, you can read it here). This week, we’re going to explore the analysis phase of strategic planning and how to make it as effective and efficient as possible. If there is a dreaded task in any strategy project, this may very well be it. My own theory is that people consider analysis like homework, which serves to dredge up all sorts of traumatic educational experiences. In reality however, you are cramming for the most important test in your career – successfully getting your strategies into the market.
In a prior life, I worked for a company that developed and sold a highly sophisticated account processing solution. It was a very flexible product and could be configured in all manner of different ways to create a truly customized solution. It worked great for companies who had resources that could be dedicated to the understanding and administration of the product. But once we began selling into smaller organizations, it took on the appearance of a great mass of options that had to be deciphered (i.e., the old “homework” problem). Now, instead of an opportunity, we had a problem.
This is the same core issue we struggle with when confronting an Opportunity Analysis project, which is simply the sheer volume of information we have access to. If you hate analysis, you stare at Google results in disbelief, confusion, and horror. If you love analysis, this phase becomes a mobius strip that you will happily run around all day until someone stops you. Close your eyes then and allow these images to carry you to the first best practice of analysis, which is to set a time limit and stick to it. A set time period for this phase is especially important when you are working with team members who love analysis or are engineers (in reality or in their heart). They are never satisfied that you have enough information or have considered all the possibilities for failure; two deadly enemies of progress.
Setting a time limit should be a straightforward process and I encourage you not to over think it. Determine at what point in the project you need to begin your strategic planning process and set your Opportunity Analysis end date about two to four weeks before that date. This will give you time to digest the information and form your initial conclusions. The important point is to be very firm on that end date and make sure you have someone overseeing the process that can manage to that expectation.
Now comes the hard part – no, not doing the research, but first deciding what information you need to find out? This question must come before you can decide on where that information is best found. The way I recommend a company accomplish this is to break out information by resource category, such as staff knowledge/experience, organizational impact, client opinion, market drivers, opportunity cost, opportunity potential, competition, and expert advice. Once you have these main categories defined, it provides the control you need to direct the analysis and parse out the work if you don’t have the luxury of tapping into a research department.
The next step is to write down all the questions you want to know from each of these resources. Be as specific as you can and make the list as long as you like. This is where you capture the essence of the Opportunity Analysis project and often it’s the smallest question that yields the biggest result. Finally, take a red pen and ruthlessly delete most of them. Ten questions per category are a lot, five is better, but make sure you adhere to the standard of asking only very focused, specific questions.
The benefit of using categories and questions serves to organize and communicate the information you’ll be gathering into manageable chunks right from the start of your project. It also offers the opportunity for you to be inclusive at the right time. By the right time, I mean that this is the opportunity where everyone’s voice can and should be heard. Done correctly it serves to build a framework around your initiative that will support consensus and mutual ownership of the end result.
One final comment and that is on the use of expert advice. There are really only a few reasons why you need outside consultants and they are: to validate assumptions that require validation, to fill in material knowledge gaps, to undertake research your company is unable to do or to provide an objective viewpoint. While many companies won’t take a step without someone outside the company who is an “expert” telling them its okay, I’ve often found that the knowledge and experience you need is sitting right next to you. Instead, consider using consultants more like project coaches, who have no emotional stake in the process and can keep your ideas on track and your project moving along without having to manage through the territorial landmines inherent in all companies.
Analysis paralysis is not a life threatening illness, but it will effectively derail your strategic initiative efforts, if you let it. In much the same way as good homework assignments serve to help us learn more about a subject, an Opportunity Analysis done right will serve to light the runway to a successful strategic initiative launch.
Therefore, to sum up this post on the ins and outs of Opportunity Analysis:
- Set a timetable and stick to it
- Categorize the information you need
- Be specific
- Be inclusive
- Use consultants carefully, and finally
- Just do it
With your homework done, you are ready for the big test – the strategic planning session, so next week bring your No. 2 pencils and remember to get a good night’s sleep.