Leaders often react to new situations by asking, “What have I gotten myself into?” The good news is that that is exactly the right question. As Steven Covey put it, “Seek first to understand.” Seek to understand the context for your leadership and then make choices around where to focus with that context in mind. This will make things in the future much more straightforward.

(Note this is the first of The Five Most Important Questions for BRAVE Leaders.)

We suggest thinking about this in three steps: What? So what? Now what?

    1. Understand the organization’s history, recent results and scenarios for business and competitive conditions. (What).


  1. Align around an interpretation of the situation assessment (So what).
  2. Make clear choices around where to play and where not to play (Now what).

Understand Context

The context for your leadership is made up of the organization’s history, recent results and scenarios for business and competitive conditions.

Organizational History

If you see a static picture of a pencil on a table you can only guess in which direction the pencil is rolling. If you see part of a video of a pencil rolling across a table, the direction of its roll is readily apparent. The same is true with an organization. Knowing how it started and developed are valuable inputs into understanding its direction.

Hewlett Packard began in a garage. It developed as a family company, seeped in the founder’s values and “way”. A couple of recent CEOs of Hewlett Packard ignored that history and tried to move the organization forward in ways that simply did not work. Don’t do that. Understand the history.

Recent Results

The second piece of context is recent results. Surprise surprise – an organization that has been performing well and meeting its goals is going to be less open to change than one that has been missing targets. The level of confidence of team members used to winning will be different than the level of those who have had setbacks.

Look at recent results on organizational, team, and individual levels

Business Environment: 5Cs Situation Assessment

The 5Cs Situation Assessment is a useful framework for assessing the situation you face across customers, collaborators, capabilities, competitors, and conditions. In brief,

Customers: First line, customer chain, end users, influencers.

Collaborators: Suppliers, allies, government/community leaders.

Capabilities: Human, operational, financial, technical, key assets.

Competitors: Direct, indirect, potential.

Conditions: Social/demographic, political/government/regulatory, economic, market.

  1. Align around an interpretation of the situation assessment (So what).

While you’ve probably been doing some interpreting all along, this is the moment to stop and align your thinking around what the context means.

A SWOT analysis is a good tool to help organize what you know around strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats, key leverage points, business issues, and sustainable competitive advantages. Strengths and weaknesses are internal. Opportunities and threats are external.

Then use that to prompt thinking about scenarios for your customers, collaborators and conditions leading to a consensus around key leverage points and business issues going forward.

  1. Make clear choices around where to play and where not to play

Consensus on those potential scenarios and your key leverage points and business issues going forward directly feeds into your choices around where to play and where not to play.

Where to play choices:

  • Which problem to solve (for which customers)?
  • Which business model?
  • Value chain focal point?
  • Geography?

Play to your strengths. We’ve learned this over and over again. It’s far more productive to build on your strengths than to correct your weaknesses. Mathematically, adding 10 percent where you have a large market share is always more valuable than adding 10 percent where you have a small share. Play where it matters and where you can win – likely where there is an unmet need where you can have a meaningful impact based on your differentiated strengths.

For many of you, asking where to play is leadership 101. Good for you. Still, it’s worth re-looking at this on a regular basis.

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