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Dealing with 'inevitabilities' in business strategy

Many of the threats and opportunities we identify on SWOT and PESTEL analyses are uncertain. Things that might or might not happen. Or things that might happen one way or another. Others are simply trends which carry with them an air of inevitability.

For example, we don't know:

  • if antibiotics will lose their effectiveness or if medicine will find an alternative approach,
  • if the world will be able to reverse the effects of global warming and/or overpopulation, or
  • whether the current political trend to the right will continue, etc.

But, we can be pretty sure that:

  • products and services will continue to digitise,
  • data will become more important in the way the world functions,
  • autonomous vehicles will eventually replace human-driven vehicles, 
  • people will be more inclined to rent assets which they had previously had to own, and
  • AI will take on ever more complex tasks previously thought to need a human to perform them.

Of course, the distinction between these categories of uncertain and inevitable changes can be blurred. It can also depend on the lens through which you look at them. But in any strategic context and time-frame, you can usually distinguish between the two.

How should a strategist handle these inevitabilities?

One swallow does not a summer make

Every inevitability will have its doubters: people who think it will not come to pass. As often as not, this is because they simply don't want it to happen.

But as strategists, we must deal with the world the way it is, not the way we wish it were.

Even the strongest trends seldom proceed in a straight line. There are usually many setbacks and other surprises. The doubters will seize upon these as evidence that it will not happen. But, as Aristotle said:

One swallow does not a summer make.

There can be few recent examples as dramatic as the bursting of the bubble around the turn of the century. Many businesses went bust. I am sure that small fortunes were lost. At the time, many claimed that this was proof that people wanted to continue to do business as they had before. That the threat of technology had been shown to be a hollow sham. But, as much of a setback as it was, the trend recovered and strengthened.

Part of the strategists' role is to see through these setbacks and other anomalies and remain focused on the underlying trend.

Not 'if' but 'when' and 'how'

Once we've established that something is more or less certain to happen, we can stop worrying about if it will happen. We can start applying our minds to when and how it will happen.

The strategist should monitor such trends on an ongoing basis. Do recent events suggest that the trend is speeding up or slowing down, or likely to speed up or slow down? Are they evolving in a way which is different from how they started out or were originally expected to play out?

For example, Amazon changed the business of book distribution (and many other businesses!) forever. But fewer people had anticipated how Amazon was able to use its new-found power in the publishing industry to launch the Kindle where so many other e-readers had failed before it. Amazon now sells more ebooks than print books in what some have described as a 'reading renaissance'. (Source)

Being alert to these subtle changes in a trend which seems otherwise inevitable could be a source of significant strategic advantage. Especially where all of your competitors are also building their propositions around the same trend.

So, perhaps it is time to go back over your SWOT and PESTEL analyses:

  • distinguish between those which are uncertainties and those which are inevitabilities, and
  • ensure you have appropriate sense-and-respond strategies in place for each.
photo credit: Duncan Rawlinson - - @thelastminute Passage via photopin (license)

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