Typically in strategic planning we start with the question, “Where are we today?” We answer this question through preparing a situation assessment report that often includes summaries of interviews, surveys and data analysis covering customers, competitors, employees, industry trends, the organization’s products and services, recent performance in initiatives, performance against past strategic plan etc.

At the strategic planning session, members of the strategic planning team present a segment of the situation assessment report. Following each presentation, we ask the team to identify key observations and potential strategies. We then typically have the group summarize this information into a SWOT – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Typically, we use the SWOT to inform the strategy development process, but it is not usually a strong guide.

Several years ago, we had a client who wanted a very extensive survey of outside trends that might affect their business. In the session, as we reviewed the results, it was clear that the trends were so compelling, that they should strongly guide, not just inform, the strategy development effort. In essence, I realized that the SWOT was probably not going to be a strong enough tool given the way we traditionally use it.

In that session, we created a method, Strategic Positioning Statements, which we now use frequently in our strategy work. These statements, which outline the overall future direction of the organization, are structured as follows:

“We believe (trend)…Therefore we must (positioning)…”

The “We believe” segment describes important trends that are occurring outside of the organization. The “Therefore we must” segment describes how the organization must position itself to respond effectively to the important trend. In some cases, the positioning statement will be one or more strategies. In other cases, the positioning statement will be a broad outcome that the organization must achieve.

To demonstrate the power of positioning statements, suppose your organization was an American manufacturer of lighting products (i.e., chandeliers, lamps, fixtures, etc.) Along with selling products through hardware and other retail stores, your company also owns a small number of stores in factory outlet strip centers. Based on the situation assessment the business identified the following critical trends and positioning statements:

  • We believe increases in the quality of manufacturing in third-world countries will result in an acceleration in the downward pressure on retail prices for lighting products. Therefore we must (a) seek off-shore opportunities for sourcing products and (b) in the longer term, establish our own international manufacturing capability.
  • We believe consumer confidence in the security of Internet-based purchases offers opportunities for higher margin, direct-to-consumer sales. Therefore we must provide customers access to all of our products through a user-friendly, secure, web-based interface.
  • We believeincreased competition requires greater efficiencies and yields from marketing expenditures. Therefore we must develop an integrated customer database across our multiple product lines to provide the foundation for quickly implementing campaigns targeted at the specific needs of each customer.