Potential: Revealed

Strategic Thinking, Innovative Ideas, Growth Marketing, and Revealing of Potential

Archive for May, 2009

What business are we in?

Following on from the previous post, and the second in this series on developing a “practical strategy”, there are five basic questions that can be used as a framework for building and testing the strategy for an organization. I will cover two of them in this post and the rest in a post or two over the next few weeks.

The first two are “what business are we in?” and “where is the market going?” These questions serve to both build upon the vision which was developed (described in the first post ) and to test it in a practical way. The thinking being: the vision has to not just read nicely and seem logical but you should be able to deconstruct it and determine its practical applicability.

For example, here’s a real-world vision statement: We help mid-size businesses improve their Pipeline-to-Profitability (“P2P”) cycle. Our business intelligence solutions are easy to use, offer immediate value and require minimal investment, using existing systems and data sources. For this company, it was a significant turning point to re-define their business in this way. Previously they were more me-too as a business intelligence software provider delivering custom solutions in the “small to medium” (SMB) market. This was a good business but to grow it and to develop efficient marketing strategy and execution behind it was actually difficult because “what business are we in? “ resulted in an answer that was too broad and undifferentiated.

Above I underlined some key elements of their new vision. Each of these were chosen carefully and were backed by analysis, discussion and judgment to test whether they gave clear guidance about what business are they really in and whether data could be gathered which indicated where the market was going. As a product and marketing professional, having clear sets of facts and decisions about these two elements is a big advantage – and too-often they are not clearly available as marketing strategy is developed.

I’ll discuss just a couple of the key elements of the new vision from above to illustrate:

Mid-size – depending upon the definition of “small to medium size (SMB) business” there are at least 6.6 million (and some reports put the number at 20+ million if you include part time, SOHO and cash-only businesses) in the U.S. There’s a fair amount of hype about the potential for pursuing and selling to this somewhat untapped and very large B2B segment. Some iterative analysis and pondering of readily available data on this market showed us that the larger revenue size (what we came to call “mid-size”) businesses were more readily identifiable (e.g., segmented into industry categories) and still represented a significant market (625,000 in the U.S.).

Pipeline to Profitability – the company had developed some good off-the-shelf analytics that could be used by sales management to better understand their sales performance and provide insight that can improve effectiveness and results. The sales cycle though is a generic concept and varies widely across businesses due to product mix, complexity, price, market segments and channels. Some study of the marketplace indicated though that the sales pipeline – the narrow set of sales steps used to move a “qualified” prospect through to final sale – was a universal issue and the heart beat of any sales process. It was also well-defined and lent itself to simple analytics that yielded significant (i.e., high value) insights. Most importantly it was generally poorly served in terms of linking the management of the sales pipeline to profitable outcomes. Most solutions on the market totally ignored this critical component.

Immediate Value – later on you’ll learn that this was the chosen “key differentiator”. Every business or organization needs a key differentiator – ideally just one (that is so powerful that if well chosen and executed it is sufficient) to anchor the focus of the business, including technology and product investments, marketing messages and delivery or supply chain operations, as those apply.  Much of what happens, or more accurately doesn’t happen, in business intelligence solutions and particularly in the CRM or sales arena is that value is not immediately delivered. Rather data (e.g., reports, alerts) is delivered slowly after much effort (and investment) and typically is not exactly (in form or content) what is needed by end users such as busy sales managers and executive managers. So rounds of iterations and alterations take place in search of the value and satisfaction required to ensure the solution will actually be deployed and used. This lag in achieving value – some call it ROI — and reasons for the lag are too numerous to go into here. It simply became clear that if value could be delivered “immediately” (the initial goal is within two days and long term goal is truly immediate) there was a void in the market and competitive differentiation could be clearly articulated and achieved.

Using these two questions in an iterative fashion is the best approach. Take each key element of the vision, ask: “what business are we in?” if we use that element. Then gather some external market data to ask further: “where is the market going?” relative to this key element – and you will rather rapidly shape, focus and finalize the business vision and also build up the fact-base behind it. This should give any business confidence that it is on the right track and once we are done with our five questions, should give the business confidence to pursue the entire vision with high energy and the proper amount of investment to achieve success.

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Practical Strategy

True to my intent, I have written somewhat eclectically about discovering potential, looking ahead, thinking critically and objectively and wanted to get back to a business-oriented mode for a few posts.

Many organizations (and individuals!) are scratching their heads trying to figure out how to deal with our current, unique and challenging circumstances. But they are also trying to plan for the future (with optimism that “this too shall pass” and wanting to be ready for the next set of opportunities and challenges). I applaud any form of optimism! And so, I have a practical tool for use in getting some strategic thinking and planning done, which seems especially useful in these times as an overdone, over-wrought approach will be overkill when “directionally correct” might be all that is needed until some of the uncertainties and issues of the current time pass. I would argue though that even in more certain times, the approach I’ll write about in this and subsequent posts is useful and gets most any organization beyond being stuck in the present and looking ahead with a critical and purposeful eye.

The approach I advocate is squarely focused on getting a specific vision and strategy down on paper — and will serve as a very powerful tool to also use in successive iterations (a critical component of the strategy process as a one-time vision and strategy exercise might not even be worth the effort).

What I also like about this approach is that it uses language and key words that were not “strategy double-speak” and won’t put off the executives and other participants who often tune out of a strategy exercise because of preconceived notions about strategy, consultants, etc. (i.e., “too complicated”, “too high level”, “not executable”).  

The approach also ensures completeness without being overly complex and strenuous as a management team exercise. I often say when about to embark on this process that I want the team to “work out”, not “wear out”, their thinking capacity.

I call it Practical Strategy because of the definition of the word “practical”: \ˈprak-ti-kəl\, adj., useful and no-nonsense.

There are two basic steps to the process, with the second working through and answering a series of questions. I’ll summarize the first step in this post, and then work through the second part and the questions in a couple of subsequent posts.  The first step is to articulate a long range vision for the business. This can sound too simple on the surface. A good vision is not just a statement that gets put onto posters, inside annual reports, or laminated on cards handed out to employees and customers. Getting it right is hard work but needn’t be a too-long effort. It must be clear, specific and define the place for the business to aspire reaching (but with no set time horizon). A test will be that a good vision statement can be decomposed and set the boundaries for and guide the answering of the subsequent questions in this exercise. If it fails this basic test, the vision is not practical and should be refined.

I’ll give an example. The practical vision for Domino’s Pizza: “Make and deliver a fresh, hot, high-quality pizza to the customer’s home within 30 minutes or less.” Several things:
– this makes clear what value is to be delivered – fresh, hot and high-quality. Any one of these may be sufficient, why choose all three? Knowing why make subsequent decisions about business model, operational strategies and so forth quite clear

– a key differentiator is articulated – 30 minutes or less (and in their advertising they backed this with a guarantee-or-free offer)

– a key operational characteristic is defined – to the customer’s home. If taken literally (which they did), this kept them focused on the home delivery model and away from building sit-down or walk-in or stores, and has clear direction for their location and logistics strategies. 

– even the omission of something can be useful — the vision only mentions pizza. No mention of other products or open-ended placeholders for other foods or items that could be thrown in. It is about pizza, plain and simple.

Not all businesses are as simple as Domino’s. Or is it that not all businesses go to trouble of defining their businesses in such clear and practical ways? I’m sure the answer is in the middle somewhere but I will argue it falls toward the latter.

As always I welcome your feedback and look for a post soon on the first of the questions that must be answered to complete the rest of the Practical Strategy process.