Strategy exploration in action
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Strategy exploration in action

Ask questions and test assumptions to get at the heart of the challenges your business faces.

'When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills," goes a Chinese proverb. The winds of disruptive change are certainly blowing hard as we embark on a new decade.

Digitisation is significantly altering how we do business. In 2020, we will also start a sixth wave of development. Where the current fifth wave has been driven by digital networks, software and new media, the sixth wave will be driven by resource efficiency, sustainability and clean technologies.

Moreover, in the coming years Generation Z will enter the workplace in increasing numbers, while the last Boomers will retire by the end of the new decade.

What does all this mean for you if you're a business leader or entrepreneur? You need to gather your troops and take some time to explore the evolving strategic environment and the big picture of your business.

Today and in a follow-up article, let me share how we may guide you and your team through a Strategic Xploration exercise.

1. Xpress your understanding: A Strategy Xploration project begins with you and your senior managers sharing your views on key strategic challenges that you foresee will affect your business.

We help you frame these challenges as how-to sentences. For example, "How to strategically align our business to the digitisation of key value-adding activities in our industry?"

Next, we propose exploring these perceived challenges in a Strategy Xploration workshop. Ideally, your company fields two teams so that they can challenge each other's views (to counter groupthink).

The workshop kicks off with you introducing the project objectives and initial challenge. After that, we like to host a forum in which three or four speakers brief the delegates on the case by sharing pertinent facts, trends and process know-how.

Following that, we ask the teams to start keeping track of things they don't know (but would want to know) in an Un-Knowledge List. They also begin collecting insights (or sudden "ahas" about what's really going on in their business) in an Insights List, and also jot down initial ideas during the subsequent Xploration-step.

2. Xplore the evolving strategic environment: After setting the scene, it's time for real work. We invite the teams to explore their case by travelling down four Xploration paths using the CALM method:

a) CHECK out perceived facts: "Men that love wisdom must be inquirers into very many things indeed," noted the Greek philosopher Heraclitus.

The first path provides an opportunity to investigate facts, beliefs, assumptions and rules critically, as well as check on possible sacred cows related to your business.

Here are two of the tools that your teams may apply:

Assumption Check: We ask teams to list their top 10 assumptions related to their case or business (things that "everybody knows are true"). Then, they have to indicate their level of confidence before being asked to present evidence supporting their views.

In Sacred Cow Slaughterhouse, we ask teams to identify "sacred cows" (old ideas that have become so accepted that they are now above criticism) and check if it's time for creative destruction.

b) ASK and answer great questions: "My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions," said the management guru Peter Drucker. One of the most fruitful Xploration paths is asking smart, provocative, and even "stupid" questions:

An excellent question (among hundreds of others) that I often ask is: "If you were not already in this business, would you enter it now?"

If the team declines, I follow up: "What other business would you prefer to focus on instead?"

You would also have to answer Pareto Questions that cater to the law of the vital few (Pareto principle). For example, "What are the vital few things you do that lead to most of your successes?"

c) LOOK at the situation from different viewpoints: To help you look differently at your business, we use a range of tools that allow teams to assume fresh perspectives and take note of different viewpoints. Two tools that we might bring into play here to shift your perspective are:

Walk A Mile asks the teams first to list key stakeholders of their business and then to empathetically "walk a mile in their shoes" to appreciate their wants and needs, fears and pains, dreams and desires.

With Big Picture vs Small Picture, we make you look at your challenge on different scales and consider the parts, the whole, and the environment of your business.

d) MAP out relevant information in visual ways: The fourth and final path appeals more to visual thinkers who like to map out information visually. What are some of the tools you might encounter here?

Strategic Risk Map helps teams to recognise and deal with significant strategic risks that may negatively affect their business, or even sink it.

In a Trends & Discontinuities Map, the teams identify and map out emerging trends and possible discontinuities. We discuss how these might affect business, and creatively explore opportunities to ride specific trends.

Interim conclusion: Take time to work on your business, not in the business.

By the end of the workshop, you and your teammates will have gained a lot of new insights into your business and the evolving market environment.

Moreover, you will have compiled a long list of things you don't know yet about your business and the emerging market space but would want to know.

What happens next? In the next article, I will walk you through the subsequent immersion and extraction phases of a Strategy Xploration project.

Dr Detlef Reis is the founding director and chief ideator of Thinkergy, the "Know how to Wow" Innovation Company in Asia and beyond. He is also an assistant professor at the Institute for Knowledge & Innovation - Southeast Asia at Bangkok University, and an adjunct associate professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University. Email

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