“Nobody could have foreseen Covid19 – or couldn’t they?” – The introductory question of an interview sequence about risk management conducted by “Businesstalk am Kudamm” reveals how unprepared many companies were when hit by the pandemic. While it is true that the Robert Koch Institute published a study in as early as 2012 showing what might happen in the case of a similar epidemic outbreak, the results of this scenario have been widely ignored by entrepreneurial strategists. Still, scenario planning can, more than any other instrument, help develop robust strategies for an uncertain future.

Crafting suitable scenarios

In his recent Harvard Business review “Learning from the future” [3], J. P. Scoblic emphasises that companies have to bridge the gap between long-term planning and short-term optimisation. While the first requires a prudent consideration of what will, could and might be, the latter demands focus on current processes, data and trends.
Here scenario planning helps to close the gulf in an ideal way, by combining analysis of current developments with an anticipation of the future. Creating scenarios means that present trends and dependencies are used to explore plausible far-future worlds, with a special focus on critical uncertainties.

Constructing robust strategies

Such a scenario planning typically results in a set of realistic scenarios which are also as distinct and dramatic as possible. In a next step, the company has to devise a strategy for its organisation and to put it to the test in the drawn-up scenarios.

Similar to scenario planning processes, strategic planning, too, combines what is relevant now with what might be in the future. In this context, it’s a company’s present environment in the form of existing capabilities, capacities and freedom of action that a strategic planning will start with. The relevant scenarios then show what challenges the organisation will have to face in the future.

The developed strategy usually refers to one scenario only. In the following test this strategy is adapted to the remaining scenarios. If a strategy is robust, it proves itself to be successful in all – or at least most – of the devised visions of the future.

Successfully ingraining these strategies

To ensure that reconciling short-term optimisation and long-term planning has been really successful, a third element has to be considered when it comes to scenario planning, and that is integrating it into the organisational structure of the respective company. Here, too, a balance must be struck between current developments and future unpredictabilities, thus helping to master the challenges described by J. P. Scoblic.

Ingraining scenario planning into a company is carried out in two directions: One goes from the scenario to the entrepreneurial context, the other leads from current external and internal developments to the scenarios. The first step is that all persons responsible for implementing the company’s strategy are constantly reminded that the depicted alternative futures are relevant to their decisions. In this way the drivers for and the relevance of the strategy are kept alive and future planning becomes more self-aware, thorough and prudent.

The second step in integrating scenario exercises in a company’s culture is to review critically the scenarios themselves at appropriate, regular intervals and to update them. Hypotheses which have proven to be unrealistic have to be replaced by new ones and the process has to be reiterated, at least partially. This will guarantee that the scenarios will stay relevant to the company and thus contribute to optimise strategic planning.

  1. Businesstalk am Kudamm (2020): „Corona wurde vorausgesehen
  2. Robert Koch-Institut (2012): „Bericht zur Risikoanalyse im Bevölkerungsschutz 2012
  3. J. Peter Scoblic (2020): „Learning from the future

Management tools are a dime a dozen. And yet, contrary to popular belief, most of them are good and helpful if used correctly and in an adequately defined context.
In “Tool Box Talks” we introduce you to common and less well-known tools and show you how you can exploit their potential for your enterprise, with today’s focus on the SWOT analysis.

What is a SWOT analysis and when should it be used?

A SWOT analysis examines an organisation’s present state of affairs, taking a look at two dimensions:

  1. An organisation’s potential (looking on the inside) will reveal strengths and weaknesses;
  2. an organisation’s environment (looking on the outside) will unmask opportunities and threats.

This investigation of internal and external factors helps to assess the current state of affairs in a very precise and exact way.
Where SWOT analyses are performed is in strategic planning processes as these often require an exact status assessment as a first input, which can be conveniently generated by a SWOT analysis.

How is a SWOT analysis carried out?

The first step in any SWOT analysis is to define its context, i.e. that the subject in question has to be described, for example a company, an organisation (or a part of it) or a concrete product or service. Plus, you need to decide what the focus of the analysis is to be. Depending on the nature of the strategic planning processes relevant to the SWOT analysis, this can be, for example, a company’s branding as employer, its positioning in a specific market segment or the product portfolio.
Having set the analytic frame, the actual analysis can begin and strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats for the issue in question are defined. If the analysis is about a product (subject of analysis) that is to be introduced into a new market (perspective), the following four questions can be helpful:

  • What strengths does the product have relevant to the market?
  • What weaknesses does the product have significant for the market?
  • What opportunities does the new market offer which the product is to open up?
  • What threats are there with regard to the new market which can impede a product’s introduction?

In any SWOT analysis, people with different backgrounds should be involved, for example staff from different departments or with varying functions or external experts. If available, you should also use data relevant to the analysis. If a product is to be introduced, this can be market analyses or comparisons with products sold by competitors.

Beware of pitfall!

The greatest danger when making use of a SWOT analysis is the failure to pinpoint its context. If its definition is not appropriate or precise enough, the results, too, will be at best vague, sometimes even contradictory.
If, for instance, the context of a SWOT analysis is only roughly outlined as “the new product”, using a modular construction system can be interpreted both as strength (“can easily be aligned with customers’ demands”) and as weakness (“is difficult to handle in terms of production and logistics”).

What is the use of a SWOT analysis?

A SWOT analysis helps to create a comprehensive and exact representation of how things really are. It is not limited to the organisation or the product itself, but also takes into account a company’s external business environment.
This information is the input to further strategic planning processes, which often centre around questions like:

  • How can we use strengths to seize opportunities?
  • What weaknesses prevent us from doing so?
  • What threats are likely to come up due to our present weaknesses?
  • Which of these four areas needs to be addressed?

This list is in no way exhaustive and should be adjusted to present needs.

Follow us on Xing and LinkedIn to learn on a regular basis how you can make the most of management tools, so that you will stay one step ahead of your competitors.

The project of launching into a new line of business was going off really well: highly motivated, the project team was supported by the board and all important internal and external stakeholders. But it only took a few weeks until there was a spanner in the works. The expected project targets of the different stakeholders seemed to be shifting from one week to the next, the project lead was facing ever new expectations of results and after a while the first doubts about the whole project’s usefulness for the enterprise were voiced. After only three months essential resources were withdrawn from the project and six weeks later the project came to a final halt.

Such or similar situations unfortunately occur rather frequently. Projects are being initiated and planned in the best possible way, but then they are lagging behind expectations or are being stopped half-way. In most cases what is at the heart of this failure is not the way project activities were planned or managed, but often a bad set-up. If you take the following three-step approach, you can avoid the most common pitfalls and significantly increase your chances for project success.

The qualitative and quantitative description of targets for the identified parameters should be a matter of course – regardless of whether these are strategic projects or, as described in this article, optimization initiatives.

Defining the target

When a project is being outlined, first and foremost its targets should be clearly defined. These targets describe what the project should achieve in the organisation’s business. The more precise and specific the definition of these targets, the easier it will be to plan the project and assess at what stage it will be judged successful.

If you set out to define your project’s targets in a way that is clear to all, you need to pay careful attention to your wording. The language you use should be succinct, unambiguous and easy to understand. In this way you will ensure that everybody has the same understanding of what you are saying.

To make the description of your project targets more objective, it is helpful to set up KPIs. Make sure, however, that they really reflect the established targets and are not just measurable but arbitrary variables, irrelevant for target achievement.

Finally, you should formulate target values for these KPIs. Again, this will guarantee that all people involved in the project will have the same idea of what the project is to achieve and when exactly this will be the case.

Describing project results

Having defined the project’s targets, you need to formulate the expected results. While the targets of a project say what is to be achieved by the project, project results describe what the project team has to deliver to the client after the project’s completion or at adequate milestones.

This can comprise reports, technical documents, prototypes or other things, depending on the project’s nature and its context.

With project results, just as is true for target definitions, the first step should be a description of expected project results. Bear in mind to note down not only the final, but also possible interim results, especially so if they represent crucial milestones for the further development of the project.

Next you should negotiate with your client about the form in which the results are to be handed in. The better you pin down deadlines and details even before the project is kicked off, the less you will need to double-check and revise while the project is on, when usually there is no time for lengthy discussions.

Before you go on to the next stage in defining the project, you should align the expected results with the initially set targets. The project results should always explicitly refer to the project’s targets or should make it clear that the targets have already been reached. Any discrepancy between the project’s targets and its results strongly suggests that targets or results have not, or only poorly, been put into words.

Specifying the project’s benefit

The third step links the project with its context by outlining its benefit for the company. This brings in questions like: “What problem is the project meant to solve?” Or: “How is the project connected with other activities?”

If you have found satisfying answers to these strategic questions, you should align them with the set targets by finding out if reaching these targets will really lead to the expected benefit. Should this not be the case, you will have to modify the targets.

Similarly, you should check if the expected results accord with the intended benefit. Again, if these two elements do not match you should make necessary adjustments to the results.
Having completed all three stages of project start-up, you can be sure that your project will be integrated into the strategic framework of the company and that clients, stakeholders and project team members alike will have the same understanding of the project’s targets and results – the bottom line of project success.

 


Covid-19 has forced many employees to work from home, thus further leveraging digitalisation: Meetings are no longer conducted face-to-face, but as telephone or video calls; also, rather than talking things over next to the coffee machine a phone call is made; and many processes have always been online anyway, the only difference being that now they are no longer managed via the organisation’s network, but through remote access.
This shift to a remote, digitalised environment works astonishingly well in most parts, but often the sudden break with traditional modes of operation for the sake of a completely digitalised workplace also reveals certain flaws: system overload, errors in digital processes, insufficiently aligned applications or databases, or, quite simply, limited server range or defective ports at home.
So how can processes in companies be digitalised in a way that business-related procedures run smoothly – even if all employees are suddenly ordered to work from home? As complex the problems of some companies may seem, the answer is actually quite simple: by developing and implementing a strategic roadmap for this kind of digitalisation, tailor-made for the individual enterprise.

Identifying the status quo

Before you start thinking about any strategy for digitalising processes, you should conduct a comprehensive and thorough evaluation of the status quo. This will ensure that your strategy will really meet your needs and that the existing tools will be seamlessly integrated into any new system (or that an adequate replacement is being provided for).
First you need to identify existing processes and routines. By designing a process landscape or using a similar form of visualisation, you and your staff members will get a general idea of what processes there are in your company and how they are interconnected. If your chosen mode of data representation does not only include formal procedures but also all other regular activities, any deficiencies in the system of processes will become apparent.
Then you should make a list of your IT systems and digital tools. For each individual setup or tool, you should write down its purpose, if it is linked with one or more systems and to what extent its use is standardised within your company – and if there are known problems in its application.
Having visualised the network of existing processes, digital tools and systems, you will be well-informed about the quality of your current digital processes and where improvement is necessary. Finally, you need to set your priorities: Which of the weak points in the network of your processes and IT systems should be addressed first and what, at least for the time being, works out fine as it is?

Developing a strategy

If you have finished this primary assessment, you will have to develop a strategy for implementing your plans to digitalise processes. This will help you to address your priorities in a target-oriented and efficient way, to recognise and use synergies when it comes to putting things into practice and to avoid double work and ensure compatibility of solutions.
To do so, you need to answer some basic questions, like: Would you like to go digital by means of a single, more complex integrated system or do you prefer linking up individual systems? Are existing systems to be integrated, or are you planning a completely new system? There is no simple answer to these and similar questions as these matters depend on many different factors. As they, however, determine the route you will be taking on your strategic roadmap, you should deal with them as early as possible.
Once these strategically important parameters are clearly defined, you have to decide where in your company or in your process landscape you start the digitalisation process. This should be aligned with the priorities you have set beforehand and with the chosen approach. Moreover, you should take into account how flexible and adaptive your staff members are when it comes to change or how you would like to deal with upcoming restructurings.
Next, after defining the starting point in your digitalisation programme, you should develop a roll-out plan. As the considerations you have to make are similar to those you dealt with when choosing the correct starting point, you can use these previous results and adapt where necessary. Having done that, your digitalisation strategy is ready for implementation.

Implementing your strategy

What you wanted to achieve in the first place – that processes, once digitalised, run smoothly – will only come true if you put your plans to the test by doing a reality check. However, just as it is always the case when you implement something, there are a couple of traps which can threaten the success of your project – even if you can eliminate some of them through careful planning.
Before implementing your strategy, you need to specify the details: In the early stages of the strategic planning process, you already set the frame for this step. Now you have to find appropriate tools and systems to fill it. Pay extra attention to interfaces which hold the key to properly working, flawless processes.
What is more, do not take these changes too lightly: Be aware right from the start that it is not just some little technical modifications you come up with, but that your interference considerably changes the way your staff members are used to working: Progress in digitalisation will change processes, employees will have to learn how to use new types of software and some jobs will probably be transformed entirely. As mostly only few people have a positive attitude towards change, adequate change management is most vital here.
Essentially, what is true for any new initiative, also applies here: Things will only happen if you get them done. In other words, you have to get up on your feet and oversee, push and check the current implementation process. Otherwise, your journey to digitalisation, will end up on a bumpy road.
Have enough ressources available without overtaxing your company, oversee the progress made and correct deviations, while always being guided by the ultimate goal of your agenda.
If you adhere to these guidelines, you will be able to develop and carry out a digitalisation strategy that closely fits your needs. In this way your processes will run smoothly, even in times of crisis.

You can find more tips on strategy implementation in our article “Successfully implementing strategy“. If you have any questions about planning and implementing your corporate strategy, do not hesitate to contact us.

The consultants completed their job and the corporate strategy is defined. After a two days’ workshop and three or four iterations of the report, the results are great: The company’s vision is now realigned, goals and targets for the next fiscal year are defined and a detailed action plan is derived. Shareholders, directors and management are satisfied and fully support both strategy and action plan.

The team enthusiastically starts working on the tasks, but soon daily business becomes top priority and strategic work is hardly performed. It is obvious in the mid-year review that the team will not be able to complete all the initiatives defined in the strategy workshop – and at the end of the year just one single project out of a dozen is completed and only one more reached implementation status.

Strategic planning vs. operational reality

I regularly come across stories like this. A corporate strategy is defined and a project for implementation is initiated. However, completion of the project fails because operational tasks are prioritised. There are many reasons, but you can make out some generic themes.

Assumed ability for change

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.” This quote from Bill Gates is a fair summary: In the strategic planning for the next one or two years we often assume that we can achieve almost anything we’d like to. That the proposed change would be too much for the organisation, is only considered after the implementation failed.

Available resources
To implement a strategy, you need resources. If a company’s staff is busy with operational tasks, the organisation is simply not able to drive strategic projects and initiatives.

Lack of focus
And even if resources are available, daily business often compromises strategic work. It is the daily business which generates cash flow. Therefore, there is always a tendency to allocate resources to operational tasks, even if they were originally planned for strategic projects. This behaviour boosts short-term performance (and may be reasonable in some instances) but mostly results in issues with long-term strategy implementation.

Successful strategy implementation
I do not deny the importance of strategic planning, but it is the implementation of a strategy which supports success. To realise your strategy and thus secure long-term success of your company, you should focus on three things:

Realistic planning
The cornerstone of successful strategy implementation is realistic planning. Be true about what you and your organisation can achieve and plan accordingly. I propose to ask yourself two questions:

  1. What is it that I should do?
  2. What am I capable of doing?

In case you are not sure about the answer to question 2, you should work with priorities. This allows you to guide strategic initiatives according to their importance.

Providing resources
Once the planning is completed, you need to check whether you have the required resources for implementation available. This should include finance, skills and manpower. In case you identify a need, closing the gap is priority No 1. F this is about skills and manpower, you can either hire staff or engage a consultant.

Keep you focus
It is important for those responsible that they keep their focus on implementing strategy. Therefore you ought to make sure that managers and employees have sufficient free capacity for strategic initiatives.
In case an employee needs to be re-allocated from a strategic project to another task, you should carefully consider all aspects of the respective decision. You should not take such a step unless you are sure that the long-term benefit of an additional operational effort exceeds the value of the strategic project. Besides, such a decision should be documented – including the reasons for the decision.
If you plan realistically, provide the required resources and ensure that the team keeps its focus, you will probably be able to implement your strategy. And with a successful implementation of your strategy, your company will economically thrive.

For more insights, we recommend our articles “Three Steps to Project Success” and Without any alternative? – Improved decision making“.

You surely know such sentences:

  • “We have to do it this way!“
  • “There’s no other option!“
  • “It’s the only way to get through this!“
  • “There is no alternative!“

Such phrases are often used to justify unpopular decisions, not only in politics, but also in companies, clubs, or schools, i.e. not only the decision makers Themselves, but also other people are affected by the consequences of a decision.

The attractiveness of presenting decisions as the only way

Presenting something as the only alternative, as it is suggested by such phrases, does have its advantage: it makes matters seem urgent, and urgency is a pivotal element in change processes [1]. Also, if deviating paths of action are excluded right from the beginning, those concerned are discouraged from thinking about other options. So for a decision maker, putting forth a decision for which there are supposedly no alternatives definitely has its pros.

However, deciding on a single-option basis has serious disadvantages. If there is only one option to choose from, the actual decision has already been taken elsewhere. Thus you can assume that the decision makers will not back up their “decision” as they would do if they had really taken a decision on their own. In the context of change processes, this will weaken the leading coalition and not strengthen it [1].

Another effect of signing off on a decision rather than sincerely taking the decision is that decision makers will not think about and discuss a matter as thoroughly as they should. Therefore, an option for which there is no alternative way of action is hardly sufficiently elaborated and regularly not the best option for the organization.

Developing single option strategies?

Unfortunately, decisions options without alternatives are often difficult to recognise. Whenever there is only one answer to a strategic question, only one solution to an entrepreneurial problem, only one option in a decision paper, someone is trying to apply the concept of no alternatives.

This may not be done out of bad will, but unconsciousness does not make this approach any better: Such a decision does not match the ultimate potential of the organisation. Important strategic decisions are taken without sufficiently discussing the underlying problems and searching for different courses of action.

Strategy development as decision process

You can easily avoid single option strategies by conceiving strategy development as a decision process which features a real choice [3]. The idea put forth by Lafley et al. is based on a simple jet effective approach: For each strategic decision, define at least two contradicting options to choose from.

The resulting success is enormous. Since there are two or more competing options, discussion on the decision become more intense, the pros and cons are thoroughly discussed, and assumptions are critically reviewed. The outcome is a higher quality of strategic decisions.

Improved strategic decision making

In order to leverage the potential for increasing the quality of strategic decisions, a four-step approach can be used:

  1. Define alternative options;
  2. Identify success requirements and obstacles;
  3. Analyse feasibility and prospects;
  4. Decide on one option.

First, the decision options need to be defined. It is important that there are at least two options. These should be formulated in a way that only one of them can be implemented as the process is about choosing the best option for the company and not arriving at a compromise.

After drafting the strategic options, the requirements for a successful implementation and its obstacles need to be worked out for each of them. By sketching out the respective requirements you create a baseline for further evaluation.

Next, data need to be collected which supports or refutes the strategic options. The data available at the end of this step should be sufficient to judge the success and implementability of each of the options defined in the beginning. One additional approach to creating a basis for decision-making, especially in uncertain framework conditions, is scenario planning.

Once all information is available, the final strategic decision can be taken. As the different ideas have been thoroughly considered throughout the decision making process based on hard data, the resulting decision on the company’s strategy is better adjusted to the actual situation of the company.

 

[1] J. P. Kotter (2012). „Leading Change”. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, USA.

[3] A.G. Lafley et al. (2019). “Die Kunst der Strategieplanung”. In: Harvard Business Manager, Edition 1/2019, pages 44-53.

Making strategic decisions in an insecure, constantly changing environment is challenging for two reasons: first, the changes a company faces are normally unpredictable and second, in most decision-making processes there are systematic weaknesses.

Using scenario planning to improve decision-making processes

According to Kees van der Heijden it is several different mechanisms that systematically paralyse strategic decision-making processes. In his studies he identifies seven such mechanisms which individually or in combination can cause a strategic paralysis of companies:

  • Ingrained, inflexible attitudes
  • contradictory, unaligned perception
  • prejudiced way of receiving and interpreting information
  • embedded biases
  • risk aversion
  • overconfidence
  • misjudging the accuracy of one’s own predictions

These mechanisms can easily affect decision-making processes in a negative way, especially if the environment of a company is exposed to substantial change. All this leads to errors in strategic decisions and, eventually, economic failure.
One way of avoiding these traps is scenario planning. Scenario planning visualises possible future developments. This process, usually cooperative and drawing on data from different sources, bypasses the pitfalls listed by van der Heijden. It systematically improves the effectiveness of strategic planning, which, in turn, will become more responsive to shifting circumstances.

Key criteria for scenarios

If scenario planning is to have such a positive effect on decision-making processes, the developed scenarios have to meet the following criteria:

Relevant

The forecast spectre of developments drafted by scenario tools must be relevant to the decisions in question. This means that scenario planning must take account of all dynamics that have an impact on relevant decisions and their consequences.
In a similar way this is true for the specified timeframe: for a comprehensive evaluation it should cover the whole range of possible decisions and their effects. If the created scenarios, however, go significantly beyond this time span, they might distract attention from essential issues.

Comprehensive

Apart from being relevant, scenarios should also be comprehensive. In this context the term ‘comprehensive’ means that both uncertainties and certainties are considered. Uncertainties, i.e. dynamic situations and constellations which may develop in any direction, form the basis for thinking up plausible futures. However, certainties, i.e. factors whose future development can be easily predicted, are just as important in scenario planning because they help scenarios remain realistic.

Sufficiently revealing and realistic

The scenarios created by scenario planning should be sufficiently revealing. This means that they should extend the scope of possible futures and their timeframe as far as possible. If this requirement is met by two, three or more scenarios depends on the specific case in question.
At the same time, the scenarios should remain realistic by remaining within the scope of the prognosis. This scope should be made plausible, wherever possible, by available data and studies.

Restricted

Every scenario developed in the context of scenario planning should be restricted. Scenarios are no predictions of the future, but describe a possible way that things might turn. Such an outline has a clear beginning, usually the present, and a defined end-point, which is the end of the timeframe under consideration. Between these defining points lies the description of a development which begins at the starting point and goes through right to the end-point.
If these four criteria for scenario planning are met, the scenarios will be a strong tool to avoid the described weaknesses in decision-making processes.

We highlighted guidelines for the decision-making process in the article “Without any alternative? – Improved decision making”. Considering these tips will enable you to develop meaningful scenarios and create a positive impact on your company. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact us.