Strategic Planning: How to Get Started

Strategy Advisor Roger Martin

Complete this sentence: Strategic planning is _______.

Some might say it’s something they do every year, a goal-setting exercise, or even wishful thinking. Strategy advisor Roger Martin says, “strategy should be thought of first and foremost as a problem-solving tool.” It’s less of a roadmap and more like a set of choices you’re making to solve a problem you’re experiencing in your business.

If you’re wondering where to start with strategic planning, pause for a minute before getting into tactical ideas or writing a hundred-page strategic plan of action. Roger says to focus on identifying your strategic problem first. 

In this Creative Confidence Podcast episode, Roger talks with IDEO U Executive Design Director Coe Leta Stafford about common mistakes people make in the early stages of strategic planning and how to avoid them, ways to think creatively about your strategic problem, and framing a question to guide your thinking. 

Listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts

Start with your problem before brainstorming solutions

In our course Designing Strategy, taught by Roger and IDEO’s Global Director of Strategy Jennifer Riel, students learn about and practice each phase of the Strategy Process Map. In this conversation, Roger focused on the first two steps: identifying the problem and framing a question.

Strategy Process Map graphic from IDEO U’s Designing Strategy online course

Roger has worked with CEOs of companies worldwide, including Procter & Gamble, Lego, and Ford Motor Company. In his many years of advising, there are a few mistakes he sees people make often. Jumping ahead to generating possibilities is one of them. 

It’s worth taking the time on the first two phases of the process because that will make the rest of your efforts more focused and productive. As philosopher John Dewey said, “a problem well framed is half solved.” If you’re working on your strategy with others, spending time identifying the problem can help you gain alignment and lead to better teamwork and collaboration through the rest of the process. 

As you’re identifying your problem, Roger says to keep your customers at the center: “Work on defining your problem until you can define it in terms of customers doing something you wish they weren’t doing.”

Get specific and relate your problem to your customer

Being too vague about your strategic problem is another common mistake. The clearer your problem statement, the more helpful it will be in guiding your thinking. 

One way to get clearer about your problem is to use Toyota’s Five Whys method of questioning to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a problem. Roger uses a similar method to help his clients and students clarify their strategic problem. You can use his method on your own, or partner with a colleague to push your thinking. For the problem you’ve outlined, ask why it’s a problem for you. What is it that is troubling you or causing you concern about that particular issue? Continue probing until you get to a more specific problem focused on your customer. For example, a problem statement that started as “Our growth is slowing” ended up as “When matched up head to head, our customers are disproportionately choosing competitor X.” 

Choose the biggest problem your company faces

Another common mistake Roger sees is teams choosing a problem that isn’t the biggest one the company faces. It can be hard to pick out your biggest challenge when there are several issues at hand. Roger likes to draw a causal map to clarify how each problem is connected and contributes to the others. Sometimes a problem is completely independent, but often all problems are related.

“If you source more perspectives and views, you’ll have a better chance at a good answer,” Roger notes of including a diversity of people and perspectives in the strategy process. The causal map helps to foster a better discussion because it encourages participants to be curious about each person’s ideas and incorporate them, instead of writing off ideas they don’t agree with. It helps a broader group feel seen and included, too. Even if their problem isn’t determined to be the biggest one the company faces, they can see how leaders are incorporating it into their thinking. 


Don’t get stuck on choosing the right problem

The flip side of that mistake is getting stuck on choosing the right problem and letting that hinder your progress. When Roger sees teams enter this stuck mode, he encourages them to just start working through the strategy process. Assume the problem you’ve chosen is the biggest one your company faces, but keep the other problems you’ve identified in mind. Think of it like one problem coming to the foreground and the others fading to the background instead of losing them completely. 

Move onto framing your strategic question and generating possibilities (the next steps in the Strategy Process Map taught in our Designing Strategy course). You might find that you identify a bigger problem along the way or see the need to shift. 

Think in terms of your customer’s habits

People are creatures of habit to a greater extent than we generally realize. Roger delves into this idea in an article with former P&G CEO A.G. Lafley where they debate the value of customer loyalty. Customer loyalty is driven by conscious choices, where habits are subconscious and much harder to disrupt. Covid has been the biggest disrupter of habits since World War II. Where millions of people drove to work every day, treated themselves to Friday night dinner reservations, or purchased the same type of shampoo, the pandemic has forced them to break those habits and make new ones, like working from home and ordering take out. 

Your biggest strategic problem could be rooted in a customer habit your business depended on that is now gone. It’s unrealistic to expect people to easily switch back to an old habit, so how can businesses evolve? What can you do to bring back that habit or create a new one? 

For example, for a bistro that relied on regular customers, don’t expect them to come back now that your indoor dining room is open again. Actively work to re-establish that habit by offering an incentive, or think of a new habit that would be more valuable to establish (like ordering take out on a more regular cadence). 

Frame a leapfrog question

Once you’ve identified a strategic problem that is clear, impactful, and based on your customers' behaviors, your next step in the strategic process is framing a question to guide your thinking. A common mistake Roger sees people make in this step is framing a catch-up question. 

You want to pursue a strategy that’s worth pursuing. Catch-up measures, like investing $300 million to get your distribution system “up to par,” are often less effective than expected, while leapfrog measures lead to greater returns than planned. Instead of asking how you might catch up with a competitor, ask how you can win in the marketplace. 

When Roger began working with the Rotman School of Management they ranked fourth in their district. Instead of asking how they might get to number one in the district, he encouraged management to ask how they might become the most successful business school in the country. Through various measures, they achieved that goal—and became number one in the district, too. 

As you begin your strategic planning process, set aside enough time to identify your problem and frame a good question. The rest of your efforts will be more directed and impactful because of it. 

Learn a process that will help you create and take action on a strategy for your business, team, or organization in our online course Designing Strategy.

Starting Soon

Business Innovation - IDEO U Certificate
Human-Centered Strategy Certificate