Strategy is all about making choices, often difficult ones in situations where you are setting out to assemble the resources and capabilities to deal with the future.
In days past, those who claimed to be able to tell the future were burned at the stake, so be very careful!.
In order to have any chance of being in the right ballpark, it is essential that you are able to assemble a list of possible outcomes that will impact on your businesses, and then prioritise them by some weighting system that gives relative weights to how likely they are to occur, and how significant might the impact be.
There are also considerations of internal and external forces. Internal you can control, external, the best you can do is anticipate and respond.
The key to all of this is asking intelligent, informed and searching questions that reveal a picture of the future to which you can respond.
We have all seen what has become a cliché first uttered by US secretary of State for Defence Donald Rumsfeld:
‘There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.’
While he was widely lampooned, there is a logic to it, when you break it down.
A robust strategy process addresses all of these, and the better the questions, the more likely that you will uncover the things that others miss, which is after all the essence of differentiation.
In assembling the agenda for a strategic session, it is worth assembling the list of questions that will at least get the conversations going.
There are questions to which you already know the answers, so are not worth asking, again.
There are questions that have no clear answer, which are well worth debating
There are questions that we do not really want to ask, the potential answers are too confronting in one way or another. Very valuable.
There are also those questions that may reveal themselves in the debate, and general creative conversations that emerge in these situations. With great attention to the detail, and sometimes a modicum of luck, these are recognised for the nuggets they may be, but are always really easy to miss as you proceed through an agenda
There are questions we do not think to ask, and do not see. The danger here is that your competitors do see them, think to ask them then come up with an answer that creates competitive circumstances outside your control.
None of this happens by chance.
Effective questioning takes a lot of preparation, deep consideration of the circumstances, and generally the application of some ‘mental models‘ to stimulate the process. The most common ones being a SWOT, Porters 5 forces, and more recently variations on the Business Model Canvas, and Clayton Christianson’s ‘Jobs to be done‘. I use all of them, as each approaches the challenges from a different perspective, and often uncover differing ideas from each that stimulates lines of thought and question that would have otherwise been missed, and adds some wisdom to the process.
There is a German word: ‘fingerspitzengefuhl’ which refers to the instinct that comes with domain knowledge, explained in this fascinating Taylor Pearson post. it is this instinct, this curiosity, fed by domain knowledge that enables the exposure of the things we do not know we do not know.
‘Rumsfelian’ would be easier to say.