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The Whiteboard: No excuse not to know thy competition

To plan military strategy, you would start by gathering facts. You would want detailed information about the enemy’s disposition, numbers, armaments and war-fighting doctrine. You’d want detailed maps of the terrain, climate reports and reports on the population where the fighting might take place. You would want frequent, regular updates to this information. Do you take that kind of approach to your business or nonprofit strategy?

My experience as a consultant and a member of advisory boards and boards of directors is that the answer is generally negative. Planning is done at multi-year intervals and intelligence gathering between planning cycles, if done at all, tends to be shallow and fragmented.

Test your own organization against these questions.

Can you name two or three sources or reports your organization uses monthly or quarterly to monitor the economy? In my experience with strategic planning, discussions of the economic environment frequently tend to be anecdotal, with each participant giving his or her personal opinion.

No general would plan his strategy using a map based on the personal opinions of his staff, none of them being cartographers. But organizations frequently theorize about the economic landscape, despite easy access to professional reports. Two sources of excellent, free economic forecasts are the Philadelphia Federal Reserve (quarterly) and Wells Fargo (monthly).  Important data can also be obtained from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis and a variety of trade associations. Why not identify reports most applicable to your situation, review them regularly and use them for your planning?

Do you have current data on customer/client/donor satisfaction, preferences and complaints at your fingertips? Again, the most common answer seems to be no, which is why so many organizations start their planning process with quickly created stakeholder surveys. It’s like doing limited last-minute reconnaissance instead of steady in-depth surveillance. No general would do that.

Some might argue that it is too much work or too expensive to collect that information, but I will argue that the lack of it isn’t due to effort or expense. The information is lacking because it hasn’t been made a priority and no one has been made responsible for it. If someone in your organization was charged with a monthly update on customer satisfaction, preferences and complaints they would find a way to get it done and you would have access to timely information and long-term trends.

Do you really know what your competitors are up to? Most people quickly say “yes” to this question. Some people speak very authoritatively about the subject.

Following up, when was the last time you observed a competitor’s workplace over a period of days to see how many cars are parked there, how many shifts are operating, level of attendance at events, how many trucks are coming and going? When was the last time you did an in-depth review of a competitor’s website? Do you have Google alerts set up for your competitors?

Those follow-up questions often reveal that there is very little being done on a regular basis to keep up with competitors. Here again, a good general would have an ongoing intelligence operation looking for any change in the enemy’s strength and weaponry. Why would any group leading an organization do less than that to inform its planning?

I’ve emphasized before that strategic planning is just a segment of strategic management. Strategic management is the process of planning, execution, monitoring results and adapting to changing circumstances, all based on solid intelligence. If you aren’t continuously gathering intelligence, your plan’s foundation will be weak and your adaptation will be late. That could be fatal.

Richard Randall is founder and president of management-consulting firm New Level Advisors in Springettsbury Township, York County. Email him at [email protected].

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