3 Great Strategic Questions to Help Drive Your Strategic Plan This Year

As you’re starting to think about creating your strategic plan for this coming year, what are you going to do differently this year to make sure that this plan is better than your previous plans?

If you’re like most business owners and/or entrepreneurs (and you actually have a strategic plan, which most don’t), chances are your answer is “nothing.”  Why? Because, in general, most of us default to doing what we’ve done previously. However, you already know that to get a different result, you need to do something differently.

In the case of strategic planning, the strength of a strategic plan is almost always driven by the thinking that went into the plan—not just in terms of the amount of time spent thinking, but in terms of the level of thinking that went into the plan.

And what drives thinking? Questions. The way you and I think is by asking and answering questions. Ask a bad question and you’ll get a bad answer. Ask a good question and you’ll probably arrive at a good answer. But, if you want to have a great plan, then you need to ask and answer a series of great questions. Because the better the questions, the better the potential answers you’ll receive.

So, what kinds of questions should you ask and answer this year to help you develop a better plan? Well, here are three to get you started.

Q1. What Could We Do That Would Be Disruptive To Our Industry/Competitors?

Every industry has certain norms that “everyone” in that industry tends to follow … until someone doesn’t. And the person that doesn’t, tends to win big. Everyone knows that a circus has three rings with live animals, lots of acts and is focused on kids/family. Then along comes Cirque du Soleil with an adult-focused circus with one theme/story line (more like a Broadway play than a typical circus) with no live animals and bam, you have a billion dollar idea.

It doesn’t matter what the industry/field is, every industry has certain norms. For example, let’s take churches. Most churches assume that church services should be held on Sunday mornings. However, I know of a church in Minnesota that realized that a large percentage of their people were frequently gone on Sundays (if your unfamiliar, Minnesota is “the land of a thousand lakes where ‘everyone’ has a lake home”). So they decided to break with tradition and offer a Friday evening service—and attendance took off.

During the early days of VHS stores, the norm was that, in order to get the major movies you wanted, you had to buy a package of movies from the movie houses so they could get lots of their low moving movies out. Everyone lived with that until Blockbuster made a deal to get lots of the big movies without having to buy the big packages. They quickly owned the VHS and then DVD market.

That is, until someone figured out that the problem with Blockbuster (and other VHS/DVD distributors) was they had huge lease and employee overhead costs that made it difficult to put up more locations fast. On the other hand, Redbox was able to scale 10,000 distribution units in almost no time flat because they challenged the norm (“vending machines” vs. locations with people, high rates vs. a low rate for blockbusters and thousands of more locations). Of course, Redbox is now in trouble because online streaming is even cheaper and faster/more convenient (note: not cheaper if you’re renting on demand, but more convenient).

So, as you take a look at your business, what are the accepted norms? What does “everyone” (especially your main competitors) take for granted as to how business should be done? Look at each of those norms and ask, “What would it look like if we didn’t do this thing?”

Q2. What Could We Do That Would Make the Difference Between Us and Our Major Competitors Blatantly Obvious?

At its core, positioning and competitive advantage are two of the most important parts of creating a great strategy. This second question goes to the heart of both of those ideas.

One of the primary problems that the overwhelming majority of businesses suffer from is lack of differentiation. As I like to say, “To most people, a Chinese restaurant is a Chinese restaurant is a Chinese restaurant.” Most people can’t tell the difference. They can’t tell what Provence a specific Chinese restaurant is from. They can’t tell if the cooking is any different. And, even worse, most Chinese restaurants will do whatever you ask them to do. So, if they don’t offer “Szechwan chicken,” and you ask for it, they’ll probably make it for you. No differentiation (meaning, no perceived differentiation from prospects).

The same things goes for attorneys and accountants, HVAC contractors and pool contractors, health clubs and document management companies, marketing agencies and cloud computing companies, churches and chiropractic offices, banks and auto repair shops. Again, the industry is irrelevant. Most companies/businesses look similar to every other business/company in their industry—from a prospect’s perspective.

Which means that one of the most important strategy questions you should be asking every year is, “What can we do to make the difference between us and our major competitors blatantly obvious?”

You don’t want to look for minor differences. You want to look for major differences. No one confuses Curves with Gold’s Gym. No one confuses a Mac with a PC. No one confuses LegalZoom with a local attorney. No one confuses Whole Foods with Safeway (or Wegmans with any grocery store). No one confuses a Mini Cooper with a typical car. Etc.

Don’t look for small minor differences. They don’t move markets. Look for big ways to differentiate what you do from your major competitors (meaning ways that your target market prospects want) and you can take significant market share this year.

Q3. What Are the Negative Outcomes of Our Current Strategy—And Should We Change Them?

Every strategy has negative outcomes. Whenever you or I choose to do one thing, we’re saying “No” to every other option. For example, if you choose to use an online only option to sell your products there are some clear positives to that approach (like low overhead since you don’t have a lot of money taken up by leases and store inventory). However, there are some negatives (like potential buyers can’t see and touch what you’re offering).

Apple discovered this and decided to create Apple Stores back in the early 2000’s, which has been a major strategic coup. They generate more retail dollars per sq. ft. than any other retailer.  But, it was only discovered because Apple management became aware of a negative outcome of their current strategy at the time.

This past month, I was leading my membership committee meeting for our local Mount Pleasant Business Association (MPBA) when this kind of strategic question came up. We have around 150 members and the largest meeting venue in Mount Pleasant seats 150 people. As we were discussing how we could attract more members to our association we all knew we were running into a couple of major issues.

Historically, our association has built itself around its monthly luncheon. If people can attend, they do and they remain members for years. If they can’t either they don’t join or they don’t renew. In addition, even though 150 members is good for our size of community, there are actually over 5,100 business licenses taken out in Mount Pleasant.

So, as we contemplated these realities, I simply asked, “What would a non-monthly meeting driven MPBA look like?” In other words, “If we took a different tack and re-envisioned a different kind of MPBA where people became members for reasons other than whether they could attend a monthly luncheon on the third Thursday of the month or not, would that allow us to attract more members and grow into an organization of 500+ members?”

Now, whether we decide to re-envision ourselves as a different kind of organization or not is irrelevant to our conversation today. What we’re talking about is what kinds of questions that COULD lead us to a different set of conclusions. Strategic thinking isn’t about the answers, it’s about the process. And this question about negative outcomes is a great question to help you take a completely different tack than you have in the past.

Simply by recognizing that every strategy has negative outcomes opens you up to see things you wouldn’t normally see.

The best kinds of strategic decisions result in strategic right turns. Strategy isn’t about making small gains of one or two percent. Strategy is about making big turns that have the potential to radically change you and your business. You want ideas that can drive double and triple digit growth, not incremental minor growth.

So, if you want to create a better strategic plan this year, why don’t you start by asking some different questions.

I.  What could we do that would be disruptive to our industry/competitors?
2. What could we do that would make the difference between us and our major competitors blatantly obvious?
3. What are the negative outcomes of our current strategy—and should we change them?

You just never know how powerful a question might be … until you ask it. So, add these three questions to your process this year and see if they might help you create a better plan that can take some market share from your competitors.

To your accelerated success!

Today’s Question: What are some other great strategic questions you’ve used in the past? Add them to the comments section below (or click here >> if you’re reading this by RSS or email)

P.S. If you need help with creating a great strategic plan this year that will drive significant growth, make sure you contact me ASAP.

Flickr image by Ulrick S.C.

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