The Power Five: Better Decisions through Strategic Questions

strategic questions


People are always looking for their magic wand: a miraculous tool that will immediately and painlessly improve the problem at hand. I haven’t found a magic wand yet. But this tool is the closest I’ve found so far.

The Power Five are five strategic questions that uncover expectations, assumptions, inter-dependencies, and impacts. They’re five of the best questions to use in any situation and bringing them into any decision-making, strategy, or planning conversation will improve the likelihood of a positive outcome.

The five questions are:

  1. What is the goal?
  2. Where are we now?
  3. How will we get where we want to go?
  4. Who will be affected by our actions?
  5. How will we engage them?

What is the goal?

Quick: What is the goal you’re trying to achieve through your strategy? It’s amazing how many people can’t answer this question clearly. It’s even more amazing how people can mean totally different things using the exact same words.

Words are remarkably complex and layered. We hear words and we interpret them according to our background and experiences. Here’s an easy example: what comes to mind when you think about the word bike? I’ve asked this question to hundreds of people. The answers range from tricycle and Schwinn to ride, helmet, Harley, and freedom. Bike is a simple word: It’s fairly concrete and well defined. And, yet, so many different things come to mind. Imagine what happens when a company sets a goal to increase customer satisfaction or improve product quality.

Our first power question invites you to get very clear on what you’re trying to accomplish. Use this question to make sure that you and your colleagues are in sync when you talk about what you want to accomplish, what success looks like, and what’s in and out of scope.

Where are we now?

Several years ago, I worked with a company that was seeking to expand its footprint in Japan. I asked, “Where are

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you now?” The Product person said, “We’re making progress. We have all of our documentation translated into Japanese.” The Country Manager said, “Great. We’re developing strong relationships with important people. I anticipate that these relationships will lead to business soon.” The Finance person said, “Nowhere. We haven’t closed a deal in eighteen months.” Three different people; three very different perspectives.

It’s important to get clear on the current state before you finalize plans and budgets. After all, you’ll make very different decisions depending on whether you think progress is good or lousy.

How will we get where we want to go?

This is the strategy question. Of the many ways you can choose to proceed to your destination, which will you choose? Miss this step and you risk false starts and stepping on each other’s’ toes.

I worked with one company that missed the strategy question entirely. They were clear on their goal, but every person on the team had a different idea of how to achieve it. Part of the confusion was deliberate—the leader believed in using vagueness to encourage creativity—but it didn’t help in this case. Instead of a motivated, innovative team, the leader found a confused, frustrated group.

Take the time to get this question right, and you gain the power of alignment.

Who will be affected by our actions?

There was a time when we didn’t have to worry about this question. We worked fairly independently and our work was judged based on our own accomplishments. Today’s work world is so deeply intertwined and integrated that our actions usually impact others. A perfect way to mess up a good thing is to forget to assess your impact on others. This rule holds true regardless of whether you’re working on a small project or a large business ecosystem intervention. A great way to identify who will be affected by actions is to create a project ecosystem map or a business ecosystem map.

How will we engage them?

The last question leads to action. Now that you know who will be affected, what will you do to help them get excited, enlist them as partners, prevent them from blocking progress, or mitigate the negative impacts? The actual engagement techniques depend on the size of the impact, the preferences and locations of the impacted group, the political context, and many more variables. However, what’s certain is that missing this piece is a recipe for disaster. People often resent having things done to them. But get them engaged and excited, and you have powerful allies for your strategy or project.

What strategic questions would you add to the Power Five?

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