About 10 years ago in New York City, I listened to the Vice President of Strategic Planning for British Petroleum give up his job. “It’s not possible to accurately plan for future decisions using our current technology,” he stated. “The best we can hope for in this turbulent era is to position BPOE to recognize and take advantage of future opportunities as nimbly as possible.”

The strategic positioning of an organization includes imagining present and foreseeable developments, and drawing a clear picture about how the organization might best respond to those developments. Rather than planning what to do in great detail, a strategic position describes how the organization is ready to surface and eliminate barriers, and how it can leap to respond to opportunities. Positioning moves from a static, lock-step “here’s what we do next” mentality to a more responsive “here’s what our world looks like today” attitude.

An organization can only grow a strong strategic position if its mission, vision, values and market place are clearly described. Staff know what the core business is, and look for ways to carry on that business in the current marketplace.

Various questions must be asked with strategic positioning:

  • What does the future look like?
  • What do we know (facts about the future) and what do we assume (our best guess about the future.)
  • How should the organization be positioned in the future that will allow it to offer the best services and products?
  • How can this be put into practice in a systematic way?
  • What internal factors are decisive for survival and for failure or success, both in a positive and in a negative sense?
  • What influences from outside can be of decisive importance to the realization of the organization’s objectives?

It is possible to look at the horizon and accurately predict some elements of core operations:

  • Internal growth: how will we build staff expertise? What new products are we working on?
  • Market penetration: how will we introduce new services? New products?
  • Market diversification: are there new groups we can serve?
  • Funding: Where are the resources coming from? Who’s likely to fund efforts? What are our cash flow projections?
  • Infrastructure: what new technologies do we need to plan for?

The steps of a positioning exercise include:

  • Agreeing upon what is known, or very predictable, about the future environment in which the organization operates.
  • Agreeing upon some key assumptions about the future.
  • Determine the strengths and weaknesses of the organization to overcome barriers and act upon opportunities.
  • Establish how the organization needs to be perceived to be successful.
  • Draw inferences from this work.
  • State inferences in terms of future positions the organization could occupy.
  • Ask staff to develop work plans that get the organizations to those positions.
  • Modify staff performance expectations to reflect attainment of these positions.
  • Make these strategic positions the centerpiece of every Board meeting.
  • Develop a foundation for key messages to be used consistently throughout a broader communications effort with staff and stakeholders.