Putting Action Back into Strategic Plans


Applying Group Concept Mapping to Strategic Planning, Innovation and Product Development

Group Concept Mapping is a form of conceptualizing that combines several common group processes such as idea generation (brainstorming), sorting, and rating, with a series of analyses (multidimensional scaling, hierarchical cluster analysis). It is relevant to strategic planning, innovation and product development in that it creates high quality input to the process and action-oriented results.


Businesses today face many difficult challenges.  There is an incredibly broad range of tasks and activities that need to come together to execute a successful plan.  This assumes there is a plan to execute.  Many companies hobble on by performing legacy tasks that have outlived their strategic purpose.  Either way management must continuously prioritize, focus, and align the work, across a diverse group of functional disciplines to move the organization forward.  Management essentially orchestrates a series of specific actions to achieve its goals.   Part of the challenge itself is often the complexity of the integration of these highly specific disciplines and perspectives, necessary for delivering a quality result.

Demands on companies to grow their business by developing new innovative products and services or penetrating new markets or verticals have never been greater.  Marketers, business development managers and new product development professionals are in a constant cycle of finding new solutions to current and emerging consumer problems, and ways to monetize them. When done well, the demands, perspectives, and insights of a diverse group of stakeholders need to be gathered, sorted and integrated into the solution.


Concept mapping is a methodology that social researchers have applied for over 30 years to create visual aids that help define an idea or problem.    Some of the processes that use concept mapping go by the popularized names of ‘idea mapping’, ‘mind maps’, ‘causal mapping’, or ‘cognitive mapping’. These tools help structure an individual’s creative thinking about a problem or improve the organization of thoughts around that idea or problem.  It is a visual mapping of the idea/problem and an alternative to creating an outline.  Group Concept Mapping takes standard concept mapping to a new level.  Group Concept Mapping is a participatory process that generates ideas around a focus, then uses unstructured sorting, multidimensional scaling, and cluster analysis, to create maps, pattern matches, and go-zones for use in prioritization and action planning.

Applying Group Concept Mapping to evaluate, prioritize and create action plans for strategy planning and execution, and innovation and new product development works for several reasons:
  1. It integrates input from a variety of diverse sources with different levels of specific content expertise or interest.
  2. It uses robust multivariate data analyses to construct cluster maps, pattern matches and go-zones that can be used to guide solution prioritization.
  3. It creates a series of maps and reports that visually depict the body of thinking of the group.
  4. The result is an action-oriented framework that be used directly to guide planning, program development, evaluation, and measurement.



There are four phases to a Group Concept Mapping project: Preparation, Data Collection, Data Analysis, and Action Planning.  During preparation, the focus of the project is identified, participants selected, and a project plan is created including scheduling, communications, and logistics. During data collection, ideas are generated live or online.  Related ideas are grouped and each idea is rated for one or more attribute such as, importance or feasibility (ease of execution). During analysis ideas are represented in maps through a sequence of multivariate statistical analyses. Participants actively interpret the resulting maps. In action planning, the maps and results are used create action to address the purpose of the project.


Each phase Group Concept Mapping engages the participants from the organization (internal and external). Individual knowledge, wisdom, experience insight is the core data feed for a map and it emerges from the unstructured free-generation and free-sort of ideas into related groups (clusters).  The idea generation and sorting are qualitative judgements made by participants. Related statements get piled or grouped together by participants. Participants use as few or as many piles as they think necessary to arrange the statement set meaningfully, from their own perspective. The qualitative data is then assigned to matrices and these matrices are summed across all participants.  The results yield a similarity matrix that indicates the number of participants that sorted each pair of statements together. This similarity matrix is the input for multidimensional scaling (MDS) analysis.  Data from the rating of the statements feed the quantitative analysis into pattern matches and go-zones. Pattern matching is especially useful for high-level pattern assessment and go-zones are particularly valuable for detailed use of the maps for planning or evaluation at the statement level. Point maps, cluster concept maps, pattern matches, go-zones, and tabular statistical results make up the body of analytical results.   Project participants actively interpret the results for practical use in strategic action planning.


There are four main differentiators that separate Group Concept Mapping from other planning tools:  First, the process easily engages participants across diverse perspectives.  Second, it is an emergent vs. prescriptive process that taps into individual knowledge, wisdom, experience and insight often hidden from or unavailable in other processes.  Third, it is data-driven and analysis-based, and translates qualitative insight into quantitative data.  The rigor and scientific credibility of the analysis sets this tool far apart from its ‘LITE alternative methods.  Forth, the results are action-oriented and can be fed directly into execution plans.


An example of the use of group concept mapping in strategic planning for businesses or product lines, and roadmapping, is to answer basic or highly specific questions, such as, ‘Which ideas, projects, or problems should be resourced over the next 18 months to three years?’ For major innovation horizons, the timeframe may be five to ten years out due to the research and development necessary to achieve break through results.  Either way, these types of questions have many layers and the universe of opportunities to execute may be vast and diverse.  In addition, scenario stakeholders look at the question from any number of differing viewpoints and motivations.

The project is undertaken because management needs to develop a comprehensive plan for resource allocation across any number of product/service platforms. Group Concept Mapping is especially appropriate because of the complex nature of the task, need for speed, and the involvement and alignment of a variety of stakeholders.  The project takes form and focus and after a collection of approximately 75 – 100 brainstormed ideas, MDS and cluster analysis determines the results presented in a map of say, seven emergent clusters of ideas/solutions. These clusters are interpreted by participants by with several different filters and attribute visualizations.

The emergent point maps and cluster maps show ideas and solution statements that are related and point to larger and stronger solution sets.  Clusters to consider may include branding/communications, distribution channels, production platforms and supply chain, legal – regulatory issues, technology acquisition, corporate structure and reporting, research and development.  The pattern matches assess the relationship between the cluster-level average importance and average feasibility (ease of execution) ratings of the ideas. The matches can show that while branding/communication issues were judged easy to execute and feasible, they are also perceived as relatively the least important as a solution to the issue at hand.


Plotting the importance along with feasibility for each of the 75 -100 statements in the set and then dividing the plot into quadrants along the average, produces a quadrant labeled the ‘go zone,’ where idea statements are both above the average on importance and feasibility.   Considering these issues for action may be indicated as a path forward.  Go-zones are valuable inputs for planning and prioritization.


Group concept mapping can be used in many strategic and innovation planning contexts for a diverse range of purposes and projects.  It can be utilized at a high level or at a granular product solution level.  Either way the output is incredibly specific to the matter at hand.  At the product solution level Group Concept Mapping is well suited to developing conceptual frameworks for complex product/service constructs that deal with experiences (e.g. consumer problems, physical product solutions, packaging solutions, delivery experience, shopper experience, use experience, end of lifecycle issues, service experience…)

Experiences are highly qualitative, emergent and specific to the individual.  Group Concept Mapping translates individual qualitative insight into quantitative results that feed directly into the development process.

We are in an age that business planning and execution processes need to be client specific and experientially based.   Methods need to be both systematic and flexible, to handle dynamic and complex issues.  Group Concept Mapping is a robust, practicable and collaborative process that delivers better results through a scientifically rigorous process of translating insight into action.

Learn more about Applied Group Concept Mapping.   Sign up for our upcoming webinar.

Tuesday, March 21 at 10 a.m. EDT or Tuesday, March 21 at 4 p.m. EDT

This webinar is a collaboration of New Product Visions and INSIGHTOVATION CONSULTING.

Credits:  Concept Mapping for Planning and Evaluation, Mary Kane – Concept Systems, Inc., William M. K. Trochim – Cornell University, SAGE Publications, 2007

One thought on “Putting Action Back into Strategic Plans

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s