Strategic Themes: Taking the guesswork out of business decisions
When a mentor sent me to get certified in strategic planning and management, I learned that defining a handful of strategic themes helps to clarify what an organization’s objectives and initiatives should be. Themes create a framework for growing and operating the business, especially when they align with a clear and integrated strategy for winning.
One powerful theme that successful companies often focus on is customer value. Amazon is a great example because it delivers extreme value to its customers at every step of the experience. Prime members can get pretty much anything under the sun at a competitive price and have it delivered to their door within a day or two. They can even order groceries from Whole Foods and have them delivered within hours. Plus, it’s so easy to place an order! All these factors add up to astonishing convenience and value.
This theme has produced some of the most lauded and valuable business and consumer brands in human history, including Southwest, Apple, and Vanguard. Customer value might not be the sexiest theme, but it’s incredibly powerful. History tells us it’s a clear pathway to building an enduring and exceptionally valuable company and brand.
How to develop themes for your organization
First, you need to have a clear picture of what’s going on, both inside the business and out. The business school approach is to do a SWOT analysis, but it need not be so formal. Merely being immersed in a competitive business environment can give an astute observer the necessary insights. Businesses of any size can start with a set of assumptions and use them to settle on major areas of focus. Some leadership teams, especially at startups, will focus on themes organically, without consciously knowing they’re doing it. They just follow their instincts and focus on the areas that make the most sense at the moment, and that alone can sometimes lead to success.
The key is to design your themes around these influential factors:
- Competitive landscape: What is your product’s unique value to your customer? How does it compare to all the available alternatives, including competing products?
- Customer insight: What matters most to customers in the context of your product or service? It’s vitally important to consider this through your customer’s eyes, not yours.
- Business factors: What resources do you have at your disposal? What is the capacity of the business to create value? What are your vision, mission, values, resources, and economics?
If you’re clear on these three factors and have engaged in the necessary conversations with all stakeholders (maybe while doing business, over a weekend, or during a weeklong retreat, depending on the stage and scale of your business), you might find that your strategic themes will reveal themselves to you naturally.
However, these things are not set in stone. All strategic plans need to be malleable enough to mesh with the fluid dynamics of the business world. New opportunities show up every day. New competitors enter the market, and governmental and economic factors shift in and out of your favor with stunning regularly. Themes are a decision-making framework built on a foundation of (hopefully!!!) enlightened assumptions, but the framework can and must be able to evolve.
What to do after you’ve defined your themes
Once you have your themes in place, it’s time to evaluate. If they are what they need to be, you should find it easy to define business objectives, initiatives, and OKRs. The reason? Now you have a guiding framework with which to make these decisions. You’re not starting from scratch. If someone on your team comes to you with an idea, you’ll know instantly whether it fits within the framework. If it doesn’t, you can choose to dismiss it and redirect that team member. And if executives, managers, teams, or individuals are wandering into the forest, off-plan and outside the themes, you’ll be more likely to notice and take corrective action before they get eaten by bears or alligators.
- Strategic themes help take the guesswork out of decision-making. They are the substrate for a framework that makes it clearer what to do and what not to do.
- Be sure to take elements such as competitive landscape, customer insights, and business factors into consideration when settling on a set of strategic themes.
- Once the themes are set, stakeholders must be flexible in continuously evaluating whether the themes are on target or if they need revision as the business environment changes.