In the 1920s, when the practice of strategic planning first emerged, few American homes had electricity and films had just gotten color. In the 1950s, when strategic planning evolved into a budgeting exercise, televisions first started appearing in living rooms.
Sixty years later, in a world of streaming video and 3D interactive gaming, it is shocking that our strategic planning practices have remained relatively stagnant. We still gather in rooms, share projections, coordinate our budgets, and call that strategy.
Eight years ago, I began running strategy off-sites. It started as a way to sell my first book, The Art of the Advantage, but my work evolved into a new approach of strategy design. I have been doing it long enough that I am starting to collect anecdotal evidence that the process works:
- A team seeking to grow the financing operations of a major computer hardware company devised a new strategy for engaging distribution partners and tripled its revenue in three years.
- A distributor of beauty products conceived a new business that today represents 80% of his revenue.
- A biotech company with a radical new technology was having trouble gaining adoption. It devised a new approach that opened the market. Revenues nearly doubled to $125 million and its stock price tripled in three years.
- A regional bank was preparing for the 2008 downturn and developed interesting ways to diversify and expand. As a result, the bank managed just a 6% drop in annual revenue and maintained its independence following the crisis, while most competitors failed or were acquired.
Here is what I think I am discovering through facilitating about 300 strategy sessions over the years. Discovering new growth opportunities is not rocket science. It simply requires rethinking your strategic “war room” and abandoning five long-held strategic planning norms that the have been drilled into our heads in business schools and by planning experts:
1. Stop projecting: Financial and trend projections are fundamental to almost all strategy processes. But they can lead to incremental thinking. “We grew 4% last year so maybe next year we should try to grow 5%.”
2. Replace hypotheses with patterns: The scientific method suggests you should develop hypotheses (e.g., for new sources of growth) and test them with data. But innovative strategic thinkers adopt a different approach. They apply patterns, or “strategic narratives,” to explore many more possibilities than the scientific method allows.
3. Postpone analysis: It has come to be expected that strategy development efforts be infused with deep analytical rigor. While testing strategies before taking risks is important, starting with analysis rarely leads to innovative ideas; it kills off the exploration of exciting possibilities and results in predictable strategies with average results.
4. Move out of the boardroom: The days in which strategy was devised in the boardroom by the top team are over. The best strategies today are designed collaboratively. This helps ensure you reach better conclusions and builds broader commitment and understanding.
5. Pursue multiple strategies: While most strategy efforts drive us to arrive at one answer, this ignores the true diversity of your opportunities. Think of your business as composed of three sets of strategies:
- To protect and expand your core business,
- To grow new businesses and revenue streams, and
- To create options for future growth.
How to do it
I get frustrated by experts who excite me with a possibility but then reveal they just have a theory. They leave you unsatisfied.
At the risk of giving away all of our tricks, here is the formula we have found works best for designing a strategy that unlocks new growth for your company.
1. Choose and prepare the team: Select a group of people you want to involve in your strategizing effort. The ideal group ranges from 5 to 15 members who represent a diversity of experience (e.g., operations, finance, marketing, R&D) and have a collaborative, creative disposition. Get them together to explain their mission, agree on team rules, timing, etc.
2. Imagine: Discuss what the future will look like in 3 to 5 years and agree on a vision for your business in that future. Then set clear, tangible strategic goals you want to achieve for (a) your current core business and (b) future businesses.
3. Core business strategy: Identify the key leverage points for your core business and imagine the business swelling to reach your 3- to 5-year goals. Identify what the breaking points will be (e.g., will your sales force scale to reach your goal, will you have production capacity, will your culture survive). Brainstorm ways to address all the breaking points. Choose the strategies that will get you there.
4. New business strategy: Brainstorm opportunities to generate new business and revenue streams. You could use the strategic narratives found in my book Outthink the Competition and/or use the free “stratagem selector” tool on www.kaihan.net  for inspiration. Sort through the ideas, analyze them, and select a set of priorities you want to execute or validate further.
5. Sell: Identify the stakeholders you need to support your new strategy (e.g., investors, employees, partners) and create a clear, compelling way to communicate your strategy to build enthusiastic buy-in and support.
You can get the specific tools and details for each step in my book Outthink the Competition  and many on the free tools section on my website. You can also get my detailed work plan by emailing me at email@example.com . If this works for you, and even if it doesn't, please let me know. Also, if you have any other tips to help us better manage our war room exercises, please share.
[Image: Flickr user Pulpolux !!! ]