37. Validating Strategy Through Analysis
When we talk about validating strategy through analysis, what we mean is testing a strategy in the context of real world conversation without actually engaging fully in that conversation. Some familiar examples of this are competitive analysis, market analysis and client analysis. These are essentially reality checks.
Our team has found that using this metaphor of conversation when working to monitor and validate strategic plans serves us well. It is particularly useful when working on competitive analysis. When you do a competitive analysis exercise, you place your strategy into a real world competitive conversation to see how it fares. That conversation is taking place in a specific language or format. As with any conversation, if one party changes languages, the risk of disconnect is introduced. Perhaps it’s hard to understand how this metaphor of conversation works, so let’s look at an example of it in practice.
Solspace’s genesis and much of its history took place within the ExpressionEngine CMS community. We sell a very popular form management add-on for ExpressionEngine called Freeform. A few years ago, in response to a changing market, we decided to branch out and offer our services to another community by building a Freeform add-on for Craft CMS. By the time we started development there were already a number of form management tools in the Craft CMS market, but based on Freeform’s popularity we were confident and began innovating and planning. After doing some competitive analysis however, we understood our novel ideas would be too far outside the bounds of the current competitive conversation. The products that had preceded ours in the Craft market had already established a certain tone and expectation for the nature of form management tools for Craft. This was our reality check. Creating something unique was not going to be successful as a first step. So we took the long view and shifted our strategy. We’d begin with something recognizable and familiar. Releasing a product that was a more obvious and direct competitor to the currently available products would make adoption easier for customers. Once we had successfully entered the Craft market, we could then gradually introduce our more inventive ideas which would serve to expand the market and the competitive conversation. We certainly had the option of sticking with our original strategy, entering the Craft market with a big, bold, dramatic splash by offering something competitively outside the bounds of the current conversation. But our competitive analysis had shown us how the customer was thinking about it, and Solspace would have had a very heavy customer education burden. Shifting our strategy in response to what we learned from the existing real world conversation about Craft add-ons would provide us an initial small success that could serve as a foundation for future efforts. We had the time and patience to begin more slowly, and work to change the conversation and the market more gradually. This shift in our approach has set us on a very solid path within the growing Craft market, and we now produce a Freeform for Craft 3.x, as well as a Calendar add-on.
Monitoring your strategy means validating it. And validating strategy means checking it frequently against the real world. This point is worth emphasizing. Checking it once is not enough, it must become a habit and a best practice to validate your work again and again, over time. We all know that strategic work is highly creative, and we’re familiar with the way that the flow of creativity can be intoxicating. It can sweep you along into unexplored realms. These creative journeys can be enchanting and seductive, like the sirens that waylaid Ulysses on his odyssey, calling you away from your original path. But checking back in with reality is critical in keeping strategy rooted in the real world, and in keeping your metaphorical ship from wrecking on the rocks.
As your team develops and reviews strategic plans, it’s essential that they are questioned and tested against what is actually, factually known about the current target customer. Is the customer ready for your sexy innovative product? Or is it too far out of the sphere of what they know to even be recognized by them as a solution to a problem they have?
I remember a trip to the mall years ago with my cousin. We had both grown up in the Midwest, but I had moved to California. When he and I would see one another we would joke about how his hometown in Oklahoma was consistently about 9 months behind the current trends where I lived on the west coast. He came to visit me, and one day we went shoe shopping in a mall in my neighborhood. He couldn't find a single thing he liked. All of the shoes he saw at the mall were so extremely different from the version of new shoes he had in mind that nothing was even recognizable to him as a viable choice. We had a good laugh about it at the time, but now I see this as a clear example of how a customer's expectations and readiness for a new product must be understood and analyzed before you can understand how to approach them. We always serve the customer, not the other way around. And if they are not ready for our fabulous innovative new product, we cannot simply compel or trick them into becoming ready.
Checking your strategy against reality is an exercise in conversation. Consistently tethering strategic work to the real world experience and understandings of both the customer and your competitors is key. It will keep you engaged in the conversation that’s actually happening in the world, and prevent you from creating a disconnect, and disrupting your customer flow by inadvertently falling out of the conversation.