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The State of (Business) Play

The State of (Business) Play

For today’s episode, I want to share an out-take from my consulting work, something I think might be interesting for anyone working in the technology industry. It’s a set of 20 questions that can help you uncover the current state of play in your business. The questions are mainly useful for technology companies for reasons I’ll get to, and are probably of limited value to non-technology businesses, but you’re welcome to try using them for non-technology businesses.

A caution: The only person who can usefully answer these questions for the company as a whole is the CEO. But it’s a fun game to play from any position, and useful to the extent you are close to, and aligned with, the CEO.

I put this list together in the course of some work I’m doing with a client, and in doing that, I realized that these are the questions I tend to explore free-form in the first couple of orientation calls with all new clients. I don’t explore these via an explicit Q&A, but more in a sort of bingo-card format, where I look for answers to these in a free-form conversation. For me, it’s a way to efficiently learn about the business, and for them, it tends to be a useful exercise to turn an unconscious sense of the state of play into a conscious one.

So here are the questions, with some commentary afterwards. Note that this is written text is a skeletal outline, not a transcript. The audio has me riffing on all these questions and explaining the logic of the sequence, so you’ll have to listen if you want the whole thing.

The Questions

  1. What is the primary operational bottleneck or "firefight" currently consuming the bulk of your attention? (eg: "growing schedule slippage on launch of product X" or "difficulty filling critical CxO position" or "PR damage control due to issue X")

  2. What is currently the biggest source of uncertainty/doubt/anxiety for the company? (Be specific, eg: "high failure rate of manufacturing process X" or "poor conversion rates of sales campaign for product Y" or "What customer Z will decide for their product P")

  3. What are the top 5-7 events coming up on the company roadmap in the next few years? (eg: key technology tests, decision points, product launches, sales drives, external events like elections) 

  4. Who/what are the top 5-7 most important external entities shaping your business sector environment? (key customers, value chain partners, government agencies etc. Name either individual entities, or classes that are as specific as possible, like "small food-service business owners").

  5. Which entity in the list from Q4 above exercises the MOST strategic control over the primary value chain of interest to the business?

  6. Which entity in the list from Q4 consumes the largest share of your personal attention? (can be the same as 5)

  7. What is the MAIN line of business (LOB) the company MUST win in, within the current business model, to be successful?

  8. What is currently the MAIN strategic metric/measure that tells you whether you're winning or losing in that LOB? (be specific, eg: "free cash flow" or "increasing yield rate from process X" or "rate of increase of production volume")

  9. Who is the ultimate customer/end user for the overall value chain this LOB is part of? (Be as specific as possible. Eg, "fast-food restaurant chains")

  10. Who is the immediate prototypical customer for this LOB for your business? (Eg, "commercial kitchen equipment manufacturers")

  11. What is ONE belief held by this prototypical customer that you would like to change, and what would you like it to change to?

    1. What they believe:

    2. What you would like them to believe:

  12. What is your "Thielean Secret"? ONE key belief held by you/your company that is NOT widely shared by the industry?

  13. What is working unexpectedly well, where you seem to be getting surprisingly lucky?

  14. What is working predictably badly, and seems hopeless/doomed?

  15. Overall, how well is the current business model working? Use a qualitative phrase in the range from "succeeding wildly" to "in big trouble"

  16. What do you estimate are the % chances you'll need to execute a major business model pivot within the next 3 years?

  17. If you do need to pivot, what is the most likely alternative business model you will be considering?

  18. What are the top 3-5 macro trends affecting your business environment (Be specific: examples: Covid, China trade war, climate change, software eating the world, input X commoditizing, industry structure going from horizontal to vertical…)

  19. What are the top 3-5 elements of the business environment that are NOT changing?

  20. Based on reflection on your answers to questions 1-19, list  between 3-5 problems that you consider to be the top strategic priorities. Describe each with a single sentence. They can relate to any aspect of the business: internal or external, relating to marketing, engineering, HR, sales, or cutting across functional boundaries. Try and state it in terms of key details that have strategic significance, not generalities (eg, "Get defect rate for manufacturing process X below Y%" not "Improve quality") 

These questions are specifically useful for technology businesses — businesses that develop and sell products or services that take significant engineering, and are driven by, and drive, technology trends. This is because technology businesses are strongly time-based, and have to evolve and maneuver in a marketplace where competition is based primarily on innovation, not supply and demand shifts due to macro factors in an otherwise unchanging market.

In other words, there is a sort of fast-evolving real history to technology businesses that’s not really there in non-technology businesses, like managing a corner grocery store or even a consulting business like mine.

These questions assume that the logic of the business is the logic of time-based competition, which means your approach will include things like OODA loops, S-curves, disruption, Simon Wardley’s Wardley Maps, Ben Thompson’s Aggregation Theory, and so on.

Even though the questions might seem banal and obvious, the thing is there’s a lot of banal and obvious questions you can ask about any business, like hundreds, and it’s not immediately obvious, at least to me, that these are the right ones.

These questions — in this rough sequence — are ones I’ve converged on through trial-and-error over nearly a decade of initial orientation conversations with new clients. Many other questions can be usefully asked once you have a sense of the answers to these basic questions, but skipping these and going straight to other questions is usually a recipe for frustration.

So that’s it for this episode. You’ve been listening to/reading a free podcast issue of the Breaking Smart newsletter, where I send out a longform piece for subscribers every Friday, usually an installment from one of my multi-part projects, and sometimes stand-alone essays. Once every 3 or 4 weeks, I publish a free public podcast like this.

In the previous 3 weeks, I published 3 subscribers-only essays:

  1. Control Failure -1 from my Great Weirding essay series, about the global transformation of the last few years.

  2. The Descent of the Public, from my After Westphalia essay series, about what comes after the nation-state.

  3. Operating in Time -2, the concluding part of Chapter 3 of my book project, The Clockless Clock.

Thank you for listening, andI’ll be back next week with another longform piece.

Ribbonfarm Studio
Ribbonfarm Studio