Center for Simplified Strategic Planning

Strategic Issues: The Pivotal Process for Strategic Success

Thomas E. Ambler
Senior Consultant, CSSP, Inc.

Tom Ambler

REALIZE YOUR POTENTIAL! Is that what you want for yourself and your company? What is your company’s potential?
Do you have a vision of it?

Yes? That’s why you use Simplified Strategic Planning, isn’t it? In the Simplified Strategic Planning process you build toward your strategy - your vision for the longer term, the course and direction you need to take to maximize your potential. Then, for the short term you make sure that your resources line up and are focused on achieving your vision.

Good strategy takes more than just strong desire. Good strategy requires good input and analysis. It also requires good decision-making. That’s what the exercise known as “STRATEGIC ISSUES” is all about. It is a pivotal step in the strategic planning process that deals with answering the “Big Strategic Questions.”

Successful identification and resolution of Strategic Issues results from combining both content and process elements, big and small, effectively and smoothly.

What is a Strategic Issue?
A Strategic Issue is, first of all, an issue - an unresolved question needing a decision or waiting for some clarifying future event. Secondly, it is strategic and has major impact on the course and direction of the business. It probably relates directly to one or more of the fundamental “Three Strategic Questions”:

  • What are we going to sell?
  • To whom are we going to sell it?
  • How will we beat or avoid our competition?

Strategic Issues lie right at the heart of the business. Correspondingly, the process step dealing with Strategic Issues lies right at the heart of Simplified Strategic Planning.

How Does the Strategic Issues Process Relate to the Rest of the Simplified Strategic Planning Process?
Figure 1 provides a schematic diagram of the entire Simplified Strategic Planning process. The information generation and analysis steps of the process build and converge toward Strategic Issues, while the later, intention formulation steps flow directly from it. Strategic Issues is a cornerstone of any strategic planning process.

Figure 1 (click here for a larger version)Figure 1

The information-generating steps above the Strategic Issues block of Figure 1 take place early in the process. They provide the raw material for the review and analysis that occurs immediately before Strategic Issues. In his in-depth article entitled “Good Input - the Foundation of Good Strategy”, featured in the July 1998 issue of Compass Points, Charles Bradford emphasizes that good input—freely shared, properly analyzed, challenged and understood—is vital for good strategy. Unfortunately, the benefit of good input will never be realized unless the critical step that identifies Strategic Issues is handled properly by your Planning Team.

How Should You Identify Strategic Issues?
Very few Strategic Issues come out of thin air. They are the products of hard digging. Below are a couple of simple, but effective, techniques that help identify potential Strategic Issues:

  • Fully explain the concept of Strategic Issues before starting the review of information and challenge your team to think about the strategic implications of the information.
  • Strongly urge each team member to highlight on the information worksheet, key information that suggests a Strategic Issue and capture their thoughts on a pad of paper throughout the review.

Simple techniques like these permit the process to be more time-efficient and minimize the escape of key information from the scrutiny of the team. Potential Strategic Issues often surface during the review of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (known in Simplified Strategic Planning as Capabilities Assessment, Perceived Opportunities, Perceived Threats) or the Winner’s Profile exercise.

Sometimes potential Strategic Issues do not readily surface. Subsequent to the Information Review, each team member should be allowed time to formulate what they perceive to be the key issues. Recognizing that Strategic Issues are those significant and unresolved questions that must be dealt with before Strategies can be fully articulated, each team member should:

  1. review the notes they have made, the information they have highlighted and those critical items highlighted on the team exercises
  2. identify the most critical subjects that the firm needs to address
  3. frame a question that defines what it is about that subject that needs to be discussed

The next step is to capture the key Strategic Issues on a flip chart or other medium that can be easily viewed and shared with the entire team. Select an approach that balances the need for time efficiency and team participation.

Strategic Issues are typically somewhat unique from company to company. They will also change from year to year as some issues are totally resolved and new ones arise. There are, however, some general topics that tend to be sources of Strategic Issues in many companies.

Some areas that typically produce Strategic Issues are:

  • Strategic Focus
  • Strategic Competencies
  • Culture modification/Organizational change
  • Resource limitations
  • Strategic alliances/acquisitions/mergers/joint ventures
  • E-commerce products

How Should You Reduce and Prioritize the List of Strategic Issues?
Typically, the team will generate a longer list of potential Strategic Issues than they will have time to discuss and resolve. Therefore, the list must be reduced and prioritized.

A simple “forced choice” procedure will rank your list quickly and efficiently. You will spend an average of about 30 minutes on each Strategic Issue. We find that the truly critical Strategic Issues usually fall in the top ten.

At this point you are now ready to launch into the discussion and resolution of Strategic Issues.

Normally, it is advantageous for you to address “What should be our future Strategic Focus?” as your first issue, since Strategic Focus is the broad answer to the Strategic Questions “what are we going to sell and to whom?”. It is, therefore, fundamental to the resolution of many other issues.

The companion issue is “What Strategic Competencies will we require in the future?”. Since it deals with the major Strategic Question, “How will we beat or avoid our competition?”, it will typically be the second Strategic Issue you handle. You want to assure consistency between your Strategic Competencies and Strategic Focus and recognize the high-level role played by Strategic Competencies in shaping your overall competitive advantage.

Resolving your Strategic Focus and Strategic Competencies issues first provides a tighter framework for discussing other Strategic Issues and appropriately narrows the field on decision alternatives you will consider acceptable.

The remaining Strategic Issues are addressed in priority order. The number you can handle is dictated by the time available. If 6 to 8 hours are available for Strategic Issues, you should be able to cover 10 to 15 different issues.

Methodologies for Resolving Strategic Issues:
Once identified, your team must consider and seek some degree of resolution to each issue. They should be primarily concerned with reaching a decision that defines the future direction without delving into all of the tactical sub-decisions needed for implementation. Not all Strategic Issues can be immediately resolved. Resolve those you can at this point. For each that cannot be resolved, be sure to state why it cannot be resolved and identify those steps, information or activities required to bring the issue to resolution in the future.

Following are several useful approaches for Strategic Issue resolution:

  • Start the discussion with basics like definition of terms. This permits the team to start off on the same foot and begins to define some of the scope of the issue before getting into the heat of the discussion.
  • Ask the question “what is at issue?” or “why is this an issue?”. In other words, define the problem. An issue is often half resolved once a good definition is developed.
  • Drive the discussion until either a decision has been reached or the additional steps needed to make a later decision have been defined. A sense of future direction must be captured - either in the form of a decision or a path to resolution.
  • Define alternative solutions and record those on which there seems to be consensus. Sometimes it is beneficial to let the discussion run to the tactical level because the team may generate material that could be useful later as a possible Strategic Objective.
  • Explore and evaluate, at least implicitly, the upside potential, the downside risk, the resource consumption and the probabilities of success for the alternatives and select the best direction. Seek to shortcut the process for time efficiency by identifying key factors that dominate all others.

Resolution of some Strategic Issues may require you to use simple versions of more sophisticated, non-mathematical decision-making techniques. Two familiar techniques are matrices and analogies. Ferreting out conflicting, implicit assumptions and conceptions of key cause-and-effect relationships held by different team members is frequently necessary as well.

Often a major Strategic Issue, which has been recognized and kicked around but never fully resolved for a number of years, can be resolved rather simply following this process.

Why? Because all of the key decision-makers:

  • are together in one place,
  • have immersed themselves in strategic information,
  • have reached agreement on facts and assumptions,
  • are motivated and guided by a seasoned process leader to reach a good decision, and
  • know that they need to resolve this issue in order to formulate their strategy.

Before proceeding to the next step in the planning process, you should consider stepping back from the decisions you have made in Strategic Issues and challenging their quality. In particular, you should examine your major decisions for possible downside risks and assure yourselves that your team has not inadvertently “shot themselves in the foot”.

How does the Strategic Issues process drive later Strategic Planning steps?
Figure 1 clearly shows that Strategic Issues links directly to the strategy formulation step called “STRATEGIES” in the Simplified Strategic Planning process. Your strategies derive much of their content directly from Strategic Issues. This content is restated and augmented with additional decisions and captured in a highly structured format that clearly enunciates your firm’s vision as to future course and direction.

Strategic Issues may also be linked to the process step that defines the future role of your organization (Mission Statement) and the process step that defines the general and continuing intended results necessary and sufficient to the satisfaction of your organization’s concept of success (Goals). The linkage may flow in two directions. Strategic Issues may arise because of your recognition that you are not fulfilling the commitments you had made previously in your Mission Statement and Goals. Conversely, the content of your Mission Statement and Goals may result indirectly from the resolution of Strategic Issues and its impact on your Strategies.

In turn, a comparison between your present course and direction, role and performance and your Strategies, Mission Statement and Goals will probably reveal some misalignments. These lead to the identification of those strategic initiatives required in the next year or so that will not happen in the normal course of business. In Simplified Strategic Planning these initiatives are called Strategic Objectives. Your team generates them by;

(a) reviewing your Mission Statement and Goals to identify areas in need of significant effort,
(b) searching the flip charts defining your Strategies for suggestions of major initiatives, and
(c) seeking key supporting details on the flip charts documenting the resolution of Strategic Issues.

You then translate each Strategic Objective into a detailed, scheduled, step-by-step Action Plan. Action Plans are the tools to focus your resources and drive RESULTS, and that is what you agreed you want.

And where did it all begin? It began with high quality information, but it largely took shape through a robust process that identified and resolved Strategic Issues and then linked them to where the action was.

So..., you want great results from your Strategic Plan? Make sure you have a great STRATEGIC ISSUES process! It is Pivotal! To see a detailed case study of Strategic Issues resolution along with an expanded list of topics that produce Strategic Issues, please click here.

Tom Ambler is a Senior Consultant with Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc.
He can be reached via e-mail at

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