Implementing a quality business intelligence (BI) program is imperative to developing and executing a successful strategic plan. After all, how can you anticipate where your firm needs to go if you have no data contributing to these long-term decisions?
At SN, we have adopted an anticipatory approach to strategic thinking, influenced by the book The Anticipatory Organization by Daniel Burrus. The idea is to identify and leverage trends to create opportunities in the marketplace and stay ahead of the competition. A critical part of this approach includes identifying hard trends (future facts that will happen), as well as soft trends (trends that “may” happen but can be influenced to some extent). We know that within the realm of hard trends, technology will continue to advance and disrupt entire industries, demographic shifts will create an ever-changing marketplace, and new regulations will continually be proposed and implemented. By leveraging these hard trends, you can develop a strategic plan to position your firm for future success.
An initial step in developing a successful strategic plan is to evaluate the current state of your company. The evaluation should include identifying major inhibiting pain points with SWOT analysis tools, reviewing past plans and their performance, and reports your firm regularly uses for informed decision-making.
Concurrently, it’s essential to gather the correct data to fully understand the economic climate and outlook of the vertical industries in which your firm operates. Whether you’re looking to grow your firm, fix a culture problem to retain employees, or enter into a new market sector, the ability to foresee hard/soft trends will position your firm for greater future success.
A strategic plan is a map to achieve growth and profitability; therefore, business intelligence is the GPS data that helps you better understand the route – the best roads to take, places to stop along the way, and areas to avoid. Strategic plans created without incorporating this future-focused intelligence will undoubtedly have blind spots, with the potential to limit their success.
Finding a starting point can feel overwhelming. Below are a few areas that will provide critical guidance during the strategic planning process. These research categories are not all-inclusive, and it’s essential to continually scan your environments and interpret any new trends that could significantly impact your firm and clients.
Target Market Trends
Developing an understanding of the changes and disruptions impacting your target market is critical. It will provide you with greater empathy and value when differentiating yourself from the competition. Ask yourself:
- What are the hard/soft trends that are currently impacting the markets your firm serves, like health care, corporate, or transportation?
- What is important to your clients’ clients?
This type of data can help drive your planning and growth decisions, especially when using the filters of technology, demographics, and regulations, as well as other trends you discover. For instance, if you design or construct higher education facilities, consider how technological trends, like the shift to virtual, impacts the higher education industry. How will this trend affect the built environment?
Specific Clients & Prospects
When combined with target market intelligence, client and prospect information can significantly impact your overall firm strategy. A few questions to consider include:
- What defines an ideal client?
- What new opportunities are available to develop from your existing relationships or expand offerings – comparing services you are currently providing to services you could be providing, whether existing or new?
- Who are the correct contacts today, and how may that change due to generational shifts or job-hopping?
- What are your clients and prospective client’s decision-making processes, and who are the right people to know within these organizations?
- What lessons have been learned working with current and former clients, and how can this knowledge be applied to the pursuits of potential clients?
Built Environment Trends
Firms must always stay abreast of trends, not just for competitive differentiation but to help guide strategic planning decisions and go-to-market strategies. Considerations:
- How are the architecture, engineering, construction (AEC), environmental, and related industries changing and evolving?
- What are the forecasts for construction spending, by region and market sector?
- How are project delivery approaches evolving?
- What technologies are currently – and soon will be – disrupting the market?
- Which regulations and laws will impact design and construction in the coming years, whether driven by climate change, staffing shortages, technology integration, or other factors?
Competition continues to evolve, and very rarely does it shrink. To understand how to best position against the competition, firms must regularly research it to understand their offerings and value propositions. The key questions to ask are:
- Who are your competitors in each of the market sectors you pursue?
- What are their value messages?
- How are they similar and/or different from your firm?
Competition is coming from every direction these days. New start-ups seemingly appear out of nowhere; megafirms acquire local competitors – and suddenly offer deep project portfolios, service lines, and staffing resources. Established firms expand service offerings creating new competitors where they didn’t previously exist.
Design & Construction Trends
Trends come from many directions, and a critical source of knowledge, and client value, resides in the areas of our firms’ specific areas of subject matter expertise. Have you asked?
- How is the AEC community keeping up with the evolving tastes and preferences of the target markets?
- If the office of the future entails more remote workers and the need to bring the “outside-in” to create a more harmonious workspace with an outdoor environment, how can design and construction address these needs?
- Which new products entering the marketplace can be incorporated into your design and construction solutions?
- How are automation and artificial intelligence being applied today – and how might they shift in the future?
The AEC industry already has generative design and brick-laying robots. Newer approaches like 3D-printed buildings are already being employed, particularly overseas. What happens as these approaches evolve, decrease in cost, and become permitted by changing regulations? Or when 4D printing allows buildings and infrastructure to automatically shape-shift based upon environmental conditions? Or when artificial intelligence construction managers guide drone swarms? It’s not as far away as you may think.
Technology often seems like the low-hanging fruit for many firms, when looking at the technology, demographics, and regulatory trend categories. Yet, the impact of generational change is hugely disruptive as well. Consider that most Millennials are already in decision-making positions, with an approach to hiring and working that’s vastly different from their predecessors. Recent studies have found that 55% of Millennials will not meet in-person with business developers, and 80% of business-to-business sales will be virtual by 2025. Those statistics are powerful and inform us that consulting, design, and construction firms need to rethink and disrupt their business development models – not just for the coming years but also for this moment in time. If this scenario isn’t on your radar right now, you’re already losing your competitive advantage.
Recently, SN facilitated a hard trends discussion as part of a firm’s strategic plan engagement. Our goal was to identify future facts with the highest potential to either disrupt the firm’s existing business models or create opportunities to leverage their skillsets and take advantage of pending disruptions. The client identified many trends that could positively or negatively influence their business over the next planning cycle. This included recently adopted federal guidelines, noted as an opportunity, and the rate of Millennial job-switching, which was noted as a threat. Why is this a threat? Where will the NextGen owners come from if the average Millennial has a tenure of just 2.8 to 4.9 years with an employer? Trend-focused conversations like this example form a critical foundation for strategy-building, particularly when looking out over a 3–5-year planning horizon.
If you are curious about integrating an anticipatory mindset for strategic planning, register for our upcoming webinar, Strategic Planning with an Anticipatory Twist. And, when you’re ready to talk strategy, be sure to reach out to Stambaugh Ness to connect with our ever-expanding roster of AEC thought leaders about creating customized, meaningful, and inspired plans for your future.
Scott D. Butcher, FSMPS, CPSM | Director, Strategic Growth Advisory
Scott is an AE industry veteran with 30 years of experience in strategy, marketing, and business development. As a former Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for a mid-sized engineering firm, Scott brings a unique perspective to his client work, delivering first-hand industry insight and knowledge.
Scott is a sought-after national speaker who has presented for numerous industry organizations including ACEC, AIA, ASCE, NCSEA, PSMJ, ROG, SDA, SMPS, and USGBC. A prolific writer, Scott has authored 15 books, written numerous ebooks, white papers, and blogs including his Marketropolis blog for Engineering News-Record. He is a past president of the SMPS Foundation, an AEC research-focused nonprofit organization, and has served on the national board of directors for the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS). In addition to being a Fellow of SMPS, Scott is also a Certified Professional Services Marketer.