Strategy is about making good decisions. The best decisions are made on the basis of a combination of experience, intuition, and fact-based analysis.
The first step is to get oriented.
The environmental scan is a process I’ve found of great value in a complex strategy project. It follows the problem definition phase. The purpose is to gather and organize all the information you can easily reach, so you’re better informed when you go on to develop a research plan.
Some of the sources of data for the environmental scan include:
- Interviews with colleagues who have an opinion and (hopefully!) some knowledge on the subject. These interviews should be informal and exploratory, but they can help a lot not just because of the information they provide, but because they will indicate where there’s an absence of information, which is critical to your research plan.
- External analyst reports are often too far out of date to be helpful in the formulation of a strategy. But they can be very useful in this orientation stage, because they tend to cover a lot of the basic information. Remember that most analysts write to educate as much as to explain, and so they often provide a good basic coverage of a topic that you may need to analyze in more detail.
- Internet searches are a must-do, and they yield a few different kinds of information:
- News stories that can be helpful in understanding the actions of competitors and partners
- Opinion pieces perhaps in the form of blogs that capture one person’s view of how some of the pieces fit together
- Summaries like the increasingly valuable Wikipedia
- Academic papers or presentations that are often published – these tend to be less than full academic papers, but are often useful as a starting point to see what some of the more up-to-date thinking is in a subject area.
- Quantitative market data is also often not quite up-to-the-minute, but this may not matter. Quantitative trends take a while to play out, but there is often a lot to be learned from looking for patterns in historical data.
There are other sources, but this is a good start. I always create a database or repository for all this information so others can share it and we can get some kind of joint understanding of what’s available early on.
Once this data is assembled, it’s time to soak in it. Bathe in it. Live with it. Let it filter into your consciousness. This immersion in data and opinion is important to the creative aspects of strategy. Once you’ve spent a few days, or even a few weeks living with the data, you will begin to find you have opinions, and questions. The questions are more valuable than the opinions at this stage, and it’s important not to get too excited about opinions or “hunches” at this stage. You probably aren’t ready to make judgements yet.
This is the grounding you need before you enter the next phase: research planning.