Business and Operations
How strategic thinking helps your business
By Jill J. Johnson
Asking the right questions will result in getting the right answer to help build your business
By Jill J. Johnson
The foundation of effective strategic thinking and strategy development is knowing how to ask the right questions. Asking challenging questions allows you to be more impactful in critical situations, have a greater influence on outcomes and help your organization get results.
Understand the critical market forces impacting your business strategies so you can determine the questions to be answered. What critical market forces are at play in your industry? Consider what takes to grow revenue, expand profitability, improve job satisfaction, enhance productivity, or increase customer retention. Structure your questions to challenge the what’s effecting your ability to achieve these goals.
There are three primary categories of questions to evaluate. Reviewing what is going on internally in your organization, exploring external market forces, creating new challenges or opportunities, and appraisal of your organizational relationships. Here are some samples:
- Internal Scan: Ask detailed questions about your customers and their evolving needs. What impacts your ownership, culture, stage of your business life cycle? Where are the sources of your profitability and capital resources? What are your leadership capabilities? What is your team’s expertise? Make sure you undertand your organization’s strategies and your opportunities.
- External Scan: Consider the impact of various market forces on your target market and opportunities. What’s happening demographically? How is your competition influencing your target market’s expectations on services, costs, and quality? What influences mark your ability to compete for your customers? What are the risks of staying status quo?
- Relationship Scan: Consider the status of the strategic partnerships you and your enterprise have developed. How do they impact your opportunities and create new challenges? Can you tap into other resources they offer or leverage them to achieve your goals? What are your internal relationships and how can you use them?
Your questions should follow the format of who, what, where, when, why and how, and should be action-oriented. As you answer, they should provide clarity to your strategic direction and focus. This will provide guidance on areas needing more research. Align your questions to answer critical questions. These should be broken into levels of importance: top, short-term, and on-going. Consider the time-horizons for change: short-term, mid-term or long-term. By understanding the time priorities, you can categorize your questions to align them with key external market forces impacting your ability to achieve your goals. Aligning your questions provides you with a deeper level of critical thinking. Make sure your questions are challenging enough so they cannot be answered without some research or reflection. Questions that yield a “yes” or “no” answer are not strategic questions. Provocative questions encourage deeper thinking. This will bring a higher level of critical thinking to your planning effort. If your team cannot ask tough enough questions, find an outside advisor or consultant for insight.
Preparing before you begin ensures you will ask better questions. Observe major industry associations as a good starting source for insight about emerging issues and challenges. Study competitors tackling challenging market forces.
Outside resources can be an objective source of information. If you keep a research role internal, work carefully to minimize any bias that will affect results.
Identify key metrics you should be monitoring by carefully analyzing industry data. Tie your questions to what improves or impacts each of these metrics. Queries should consider what effects your profit margin, return on capital, return on investment, and return on assets. You’ll never have all the available data to answer every question. The goal is to obtain enough information to make reasonable judgments or to clarify questions.
Asking questions that matter will build your confidence and others will be more confident to work with you. Thinking strategically is a skill set you must actively work at trying to improve. Learning to ask challenging questions allows you to be more impactful in critical situations, have an influence on outcomes, and help achieve greater results. Find resources to help you learn and practice your critical thinking skills. Building your strategic mindset takes time, discipline and focus.