3 min read

Is Context the Missing Piece in Your Strategic Thinking?

Is Context the Missing Piece in Your Strategic Thinking?

Let me know if this rings true for you.

You are in a conference room (or now in a virtual meeting) where a team member presents a slide of data in a teeny-tiny font. You think you have seen these slides before, yet your eyes strain to identify the piece of data the presenter is discussing.

As you squint your eyes a little tighter, you wonder if there is a paper handout you missed that would help you keep track of the point she’s trying to make.

You are a bit lost; you thought this was a planning meeting.

What role does this data have in your strategic planning?

Is it supposed to reveal some insight into how you should proceed?

When do you get to talk about new stuff?

Sound familiar?

Management teams love data and their tools to analyze them, but they often expect more from them than they can deliver.When attention turns to planning, leadership teams expand their regular review of transactional reporting to include a business evaluation with assessment tools like the four-quadrant SWOT analysis or a deeper dive on their Balanced Scorecard dashboards. They might even spend more time presenting charts and graphs on performance trends against prior periods and targets. This analysis reveals a great deal about current performance, but they rarely show much about what to focus on next.

I too love to analyze data, and assessments are necessary to ground planning efforts.  But for the most part, the analysis of data is a focus on lagging indicators. An in-depth review of current performance typically fails to stimulate new thinking that will build on this year’s success to achieve true competitive advantage in the next.

What today’s planning needs more of is context.

  • Context to understand the dramatic shifts made in our markets during this unprecedented year to change.
  • Context to understand where we now sit within this new market.
  • Context to make sense of the insights we gain from our data, dashboards, and analysis to shape our plans for the future.

But, how do you know you are missing context?

A lack of context makes itself known in many ways. We recognize it when we see these three patterns in our client groups.

  1. The passion for data analysis or real-time data dashboards captivates a leadership team’s mindshare, limiting their focus to incremental improvement and putting them at risk of missing potentially significant changes in their external environment or marketplace.
  2. Executives and managers express frustration because meetings are easily sidetracked to explore a new event, new information, or an emerging opportunity. To those focused on making progress on existing goals or needing input on current business challenges, the time and resources spent exploring these emerging issues and opportunities seems like a distraction. To those engaged in the exploration, it appears that the firm is innovative.
  3. Protection and growth of the status quo dominate the planning agenda. There is an aversion to engaging in long-range planning or wide-ranged planning discussion because past attempts have been unproductive or too chaotic. The preference is to explore growth within the current market focus, business model, and product/service offering over engaging in new thinking.

Each of these patterns can produce strategic thinking blind spots. 

  • Without the context of market trends, an over-dependence on operating data and internally focused analytical dashboards to judge performance can trick a management team into thinking they are performing at a high level when in reality, they may be losing ground against competitors. If their market is growing faster than they are, they risk losing market share.
  • Following new ideas and new opportunities without staying true to your core is a significant factor in why businesses fail. Not every event has significant implications, not every new piece of market intelligence is meaningful, and not every great opportunity is one that you need to pursue at this time.  Without context, teams struggle to agree on how important, influential, or valuable emerging issues and opportunities are to their success. Precious time and resources are wasted in chasing down enough information to make that judgment. Even then, a decision to modify priorities or reallocate resources will be hampered with the context to understand what tradeoffs such a change will force.
  • When teams don’t have a way to engage in new thinking productively, they avoid it in favor of managing the status quo. Strategic thinking requires an ability to explore your context broadly to gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics at play. This deeper understanding provides the insights you need to evaluate your current position more realistically and if you need to develop a plan to move to a different position within your context: your strategy.  These are not the types of conversations teams regularly have. I like to say these are not muscles used as frequently as, say, problem-solving muscles. But the lack of comfort in these conversations is a weakness in a leadership team, and they will produce a blind spot in its thinking.

So, as we renew strategic plans post-pandemic, don’t sit through a presentation of teeny-tiny data or waiting for the analysis to end and the new thinking to start. Raise your hand and ask for more context. 

You might try one of these questions:

“How should this data influence our strategic thinking?” 

“What are the insights you hope your analysis will have on our future direction?”

If there is no immediate response, delicately suggest the group discuss the context you should be examining this data within before proceeding. 

If you’ve already tried something like this with less than ideal results, your group may be desperate for strategic planning.  Download our Strategy Session Checklist or reach out to us directly to discuss how we can help. 

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