"There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one's self."

- Benjamin Franklin

Many of us are creeping into strategic planning season, that magical month or two when we get to fall in love with PowerPoint all over again.

While it may sound inane, the basic question of strategic planning is simple: "Now what?"  The business evolved from whatever it was into the thing it is today. Where next?  When?  How?  And (if we're really good) Why?

But here's one fallacy to avoid: WWJD... What Would Jack (Welch) Do?  Or Warren Buffet, or Google, or your nearest competitor.  They may be a source of inspiration, or ideas, or insight.  But they are not you.

I recently met a business leader with a clear understanding of his organization.  He knew that they do three things really well: work with Material A, work with Material B, and deliver a certain package of services.  He also had a clear grasp of the company's risk profile, its bench strength and its key objectives.

That's enough for strategic planning.  Because effective plans are always based on an organization's unique situation: its competencies, constraints and resources.

It doesn't matter if Alibaba can take advantage of a new market... if we can't.  Conversely, it doesn't matter if Competitor #1 can't get past a technology barrier... if we can.  If we know ourselves, then we can define our best, most realistic opportunities.

But, says old Ben, that's no easy thing.  So start by asking, "What do we do fairly easily that is more difficult for others?"  And don't be too discriminating.  No, Using Smartphones is not a unique competency.  But you may actually have a strong position in something that seems mundane:

  • Maintaining databases
  • Managing complex projects
  • Finding unusual suppliers
  • Coating metals
  • Billing in increments
  • Shipping large structures
  • Coordinating pricing among channel partners
  • Writing simple software interfaces

The list of possible unique strengths is, literally, endless.

But to be able to answer the question "Now what?" we have to be able to first answer the question "Who are we?"