The Importance Of Knowing Where We Are: Understanding The Organization Context And Environment


These concerns are generally internal (or very closely related):

  • Inability to attract young, qualified people.
  • Lack of understanding of the global political situation.
  • Lack of R&D capability.
  • Reliance on a single supplier.
  • Poor internal communications.
  • Inability to communicate effectively with the government.
  • Inability to communicate effectively with potential clients.
  • Poor financial situation


Opportunities can be found in many areas, but sometimes, as mentioned previously, you may need to reframe your business concept to see new opportunities:

  • New alliances, including geographical, horizontal, or vertical extensions of your business.
  • New technology developments.
  • New, broader marketing or business opportunities.
  • New product development.
  • New ways of adding value.
  • Potential relationships, such as other industries, services, allies, NGOs, universities.


Like opportunities, there are threats from many areas:

  • From organizations that are directly competitive.
  • From new technologies that are similar to yours but cheaper (and include counterfeits, here).
  • From organizations that attract better people.
  • From organizations that are more cost effective.
  • From organizations that are better at strategic communications.
  • From potential competitive acquisitions or mergers.
  • From potential competitive alliances and partnerships with other businesses, universities, etc.

Using This Information in Preparation for the Vision-Based Planning (VBP) Workshop

We take all the information from our interviews, the SWOT analysis and more as input to the design of our workshops in which the leadership will produce its strategic plan. Next, we enter our analysis, preparation, and detailed workshop design phase, which usually consumes 250 to 300 hours. We spend some considerable time thinking about the organization from different perspectives. We research the organization’s field of business and think about opportunities and threats that are really “way out,” including things that might not only surprise the organization, but its competitors too. From these we prepare sets of questions we want the organization’s leadership and extended team of participants to answer during the course of the workshops. While we sometimes ask questions directly, we often find that indirect questioning provides more insight. (If this… then what…? Or what would you expect if…? Or if this were a movie, how would you expect the story to develop?)

We also want participants to make assessments of various elements in the organization, its STEEP or STEP categories, for instance. To do this, we prepare huge templates of different kinds, based on our understanding of the organization, on which the participants will draw mind maps, rate ideas, and assess capabilities. Most of the templates are visual and very “hands-on.” We have all kinds of scales on which they rate various capabilities, for instance, by placing “sticky dots” on the scales. These serve as very useful visual descriptions, where everyone can see clusters and outliers as their answers to questions about capabilities. If there are significant polarizations in the assessments, or even one or two significant outliers, it is then worth asking the people who gave the outliers (if they are willing to do so) to explain their rationale. Having the participants work on them together, jostling elbows and laughing with each other, also helps to break down barriers and open up the discussion.

At the end of this session, as we frequently do, we have a “What’s Missing?” question period, and while we do not always gain huge insights from it, there have been occasions when someone has identified a new issue that has been critically important. From here, we can then go on to think about the future of the organization.

Key Points from the two “Knowing Where We Are” articles.

Your organization needs to understand where it’s at before you can think about the future, develop a vision and mission, and plan a route and strategy to get there.

Before the VBP workshop where you develop the strategic plan, you should conduct interviews with your leadership, some key stakeholders and mavericks, and use information from the interviews to prepare questions and templates for use in the workshops.

To develop a comprehensive understanding of your organization and its operating environment, we recommend at least two major areas of analysis:

STEEP: Examine Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, and Political issues.

SWOT: Look at your organization’s major Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats

Excerpted from Strategy with Passion: A Leader’s Guide to Exploiting the Future by MacNulty & Woodall


Christine MacNulty
Christine MacNulty
CHRISTINE MacNulty has forty years’ experience as a consultant in long-term strategic -planning for concepts as well as organizations, futures studies, foresight, and technology forecasting, technology assessment and related areas, as well as socio-cultural change. For the last twenty years, most of her consultancy has been conducted for the Department of Defense and the Services, NATO ACT, NATO NEC, the British Army’s Force Development & Training Command, and the German BBK. Prior to that her work was in the commercial arena where she had Fortune Global 500 clients. During the last thirty-five years Christine MacNulty has contributed methods and models for understanding social and cultural change through people’s values. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in 1989. She is the coauthor of two books: Industrial Applications of Technology Forecasting, Wiley, 1971 and Strategy with Passion – A Leader’s Guide to Exploiting the Future, August 2016. Her paper: “Method for minimizing the negative consequences of nth order effects in strategic communication actions and inactions” was published in NATO Defence Strategic Communications Journal, p 99, Winter 2015. Two monographs “Truth, Perception & Consequences” (2007) and “Transformation: From the Outside In or the Inside Out” (2008) were published by the Army War College. Perceptions, Values & Motivations in Cyberspace appeared in the IO Journal, 3rd Quarter, 2009, and The Value of Values for IO, SC & Intel was published in the August 2010 edition of the IO Journal.

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  1. I like using the SWOT approach with SWAT-like tactics. (SWAT being those guys with the body armor and guns.) I find many when giving an approach will over analyze the approach, making it difficult to execute. Often there is a pattern within the SWOT… a series of triads that once emphasized simplifies the whole analysis.