Situation Analysis: Take Two

In a world that thrives on action and problem solving, timeliness is prized. Adages like “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” normalize an urgency to act with approximate accuracy and good-enough effectiveness. But what happens our situation analyses are rushed, episodic, and involve few if any "second takes?"

When a group of “cooler heads” prevail, their fact-based, analysis of problem situations or opportunities often succeed. Sound methods and practices for such analysis have been developed and are taught in business schools. Most rely on data gathering, quantitative analysis, and some sort of deliberation, scenario planning, and practical judgment.

Still, more than 50% of new businesses fail within two years, 40-60% of new hires depart the hiring company within 18 months, and the majority of process improvement initiatives and M&A investments fail to achieve their aims. So, our methods are not perfect, and anything that can improve their success deserves our attention, even if it stems from the “soft” science of psychology.

Situation Analysis & Particularity

In business, situation analysis is an established means of guiding judgment on strategic action and on vital tactical decisions. Here’s one definition of situation analysis:

The systematic collection and study of past and present data to identify trends, forces, and conditions with the potential to influence the performance of the business and the choice of appropriate strategies. The situation analysis is the foundation of the strategic planning process. The situation analysis includes an examination of both the internal factors (to identify strengths and weaknesses) and external factors (to identify opportunities and threats). It is often referred to by the acronym SWOT. (American Marketing Association)

What goes less noticed in business methods is the role of interpretation. Facts and data don’t really explain themselves. And models and theories intended for explaining things in general don't really explain this or that situation in particular. Particularity, after all, refers to unique, case-specific, qualities of an individual person, situation, or experience.

And it is interpretation that we rely on when seeking to understand the unique features and causal influences that explain something we wish to understand with particularity. In the field of action, we shape our strategy to this particularity. Particularity concerns the minute details “out there” that we might observe with a second “take.” It also consists in seeing them as other stakeholders see them.

We are among the stakeholders, aren’t we? So, particularity implies a meta-awareness of our own and others’ perceptions, thought, feelings, strivings, practical interests – these are the lenses through which we see the particulars that differentiate our situation. We do so by suspending judgment, loosening the grip of urgent drives and desires. We then see the situation as it really is, not as some mere objectivity, but as a multi-faceted relatum.

Particularity concerns the way a situation is given to us in experience, but it includes the other ways it might be given to us too. Thus, seeking an accurate and sufficient grasp of particulars in a specific situation involves a special rigor in seeing things. It gives us better insight into how what is seen may be relevant to the motivations, aspirations, and purposes of the stakeholders involved.

Eliciting Particularity

First, we must summarize the situation as we observe it to be. Let’s take an example of problematic change: The VP of Marketing for ABC Company informs our agency by email to halt all service delivery on a multi-media promotional initiative. The account executive, Eric, shares the news with his boss, and the request for information begins, “We can’t lose this business!”

That’s what happened. Is there more to the story? Probably, but Eric is having difficulty getting further information. So, how does he interpret the situation? The VP is playing it close to the vest, which is not characteristic of her. Eric is accountable for this as Q4 revenue: “My superiors don’t like bad news.” Thus, Eric asks the client if there’s anything he can do to keep the business - “issues we can resolve?”

The client says “no,” there’s no way it can be changed. After informing his boss, Eric is called into a meeting with senior management. He was anxious. Some of them were too. The COO broke the silence, “Look, this is an anchor client. We need to retain the revenue, but, even more, we need to retain the client. So, let’s see if we can sort this out.” His tone was calm.

He continued, “Tell me more about the situation, Eric.” This was enough to calm Eric a bit. His COO signaled to the group a norm of composure and care. Eric said that the client had gone quiet the past few weeks while Eric was spending his time trying to close 4th quarter sales. Then this news broke. They soon concluded that something had gone awry, but further pressuring Eric was not the answer.

They wanted was to retain the client, but their actions had served to neglect communications with the client. Historically, their business grew with this client as the trust and intimacy of the relationship had grown. What kept them in the inner circle of service providers was their direct relevance to the client’s priorities. These kinds of interpretations produced working hypotheses and next steps.

Take Two

Actions and strategies, including those for account management, emerge from a particularistic kind of situation analysis and planning. An essential fact about particulars is that they change. External factors change and affect factual particulars, and internal factors change that affect perceptions. We cannot know how these factors change and influence our client unless we “travel” with them.

That’s the true mark of intimacy. We know the clients with whom we have intimacy in their particularity as a company, as managers, and as people trying to thrive. A good situation analysis is a snapshot based on take-two perceptions and interpretations of the particulars that inform adaptive change for our clients and that inform our strategies and practices for serving them.