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Comparative Strategic Analyses:  Select a competitor to the organization you analyzed in Unit Six. Provide a written comparative strategic analysis of the two organizations with regard to the following:

  • Product/brand/service portfolios
  • Pricing strategies
  • Distribution channels and major channel partners
  • Marketing communications; major communication channels; core promotional messages
  • Major strengths and weaknesses regarding 4 Ps
  • Degree of innovativeness and factors driving innovativeness

Can you explain the relative market performance of these organizations based on the results of your analysis? What are the takeaways? What did you learn about the industry? What does it take to be successful in this industry? Were you able to identify any unserved gaps in the market?

0007-6813/$ — see front matter # 2017 Kelley School of Business, Indiana University. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bushor.2017.11.010

Copyright 2017 by Kelley School of Business, Indiana University. For reprints, call HBS Publishing at (800) 545-7685. BH888

Business Horizons (2018) 61, 285—296

Available online at www.sciencedirect.com

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Circle mapping your firm’s growth strategy

Vincent Bruni-Bossio *, Norman T. Sheehan, Chelsea R. Willness

Edwards School of Business, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon SK S7N 5A7, Canada

* Corresponding author
E-mail addresses: [email protected]

(V. Bruni-Bossio), [email protected] (N.T. Sheehan),
[email protected] (C.R. Willness)

KEYWORDS
Growth strategy;
Knowledge
visualization;
Value proposition;
Customer segments;
Resources and
capabilities

Abstract This article offers an innovative graphical approach to facilitating an
interactive discussion about identifying and assessing potential growth opportu-
nities. Our approach, circle mapping, visually conceptualizes growth as occupying
space, where market space is defined by a set of concentric circles. The circle
presently occupied by the firm is defined by its current set of customers and the value
proposition offered to them, while the outer concentric circles represent growth
opportunities that are defined by new customers and value propositions. The process
of circle mapping prompts leadership teams to formulate a growth strategy by
visually mapping the value proposition for future customers in relation to the firm’s
capacity to access the resources and capabilities needed to successfully occupy those
spaces. The model allows leaders to conceptualize growth strategies, such as
leveraging success in one circle to target consumers in another. It can also allow
leaders to evaluate the rewards and risks associated with different growth oppor-
tunities, while the visual aspect of the model assists with overcoming some common
challenges of applying strategy frameworks to develop new strategies. By having
leaders visually depict and justify where and why they want to grow, circle mapping
helps firms conceptualize a profitable future and then confidently move toward that
space.
# 2017 Kelley School of Business, Indiana University. Published by Elsevier Inc. All
rights reserved.

1. Visualizing growth strategies

Developing effective growth options for a firm
is difficult due to the information overload
associated with evaluating multiple options in

today’s competitive environment. Generating
growth strategies involves simultaneously being
aware of multiple environmental factors and
trends, competitors, customer value propositions,
government regulations, etc. The ability to inte-
grate these into profitable strategy is a daunting
task for many leaders (Eppler & Platts, 2009). In our
experience, leaders struggle to assimilate the in-
formation needed to generate growth options that
successfully exploit the company’s resources and
capabilities. This discussion is further complicated D

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286 V. Bruni-Bossio et al.

as leaders are typically given large amounts of data
derived from various strategy frameworks. We
have witnessed leaders struggling to cope with
information overload, watching them satisfice by
only focusing on what they understand. This
typically results in incremental improvements
to the firm’s current strategy because it is easier
to formulate and explain small changes than to
conceptualize and explain how the firm’s resources
and capabilities may be leveraged to generate
growth in tomorrow’s markets.

To address the challenges of generating
profitable growth options, we turned to the
writings by Sun Tzu in The Art of War on occupying
space. Unlike conventional military strategists,
Sun Tzu avoided direct confrontation with
enemies because such confrontations are often
unpredictable and may result in potentially
damaging losses. Instead, Sun Tzu promoted the
idea of overtaking enemies by occupying the
space around them through a series of small wins
(Sun Tzu, 1910/2005). By combining Sun Tzu’s
ideas with the literature on value propositions,
we developed a conceptual growth-mapping tool
called circle mapping. Growth in circle mapping is
not about defeating competitors but rather
identifying attractive spaces to occupy, where
the space is defined in terms of new value
propositions and/or new customers. While Sun
Tzu speaks of tactically beating back the enemy
to occupy geographical space, in business we speak
of beating rivals to occupy the cognitive space of
target customers. Circle mapping is a visual tool
that simplifies the ideation process for senior
management teams when thinking about future
spaces so that they can develop effective growth
options. Research shows that visual mapping tools
lead to generation of higher-quality alternatives
by mitigating the cognitive and social challenges
faced by teams of senior leaders, as well as
enhancing buy-in to the growth strategy that is
ultimately selected (Eppler & Platts, 2009).

Currently, leaders and practitioners attempting
to generate growth opportunities use several well-
known, traditional strategic frameworks to analyze
their firm’s external environment (e.g., Porter’s
Five Forces (Porter, 2008), PESTEL (Aguilar, 1967))
and internal environment (e.g., resource-based
view (Barney, 1991), value chain analysis (Porter,
1985)). While these existing frameworks are effec-
tive for scanning the firm’s internal and external
landscape, they can be enhanced by using a tool
that helps to identify growth opportunities. A key
strength of circle mapping is that it is a strategy
development tool that builds on and complements
tools like PESTEL, Porter’s Five Forces, VRIO, and

value chain analysis, which are strategy analysis
frameworks.

By breaking down the analysis of the firm’s
environment into smaller, manageable parts, tradi-
tional strategy frameworks help leaders generate
lists of relevant factors to consider when developing
a strategy. These frameworks provide the data
needed to develop effective strategies, but we
argue this data needs to be placed in a visual tool
to enable an effective discussion of growth options.
As we later describe, when leaders use circle map-
ping to draw concentric circles beyond the one they
currently occupy, they are building and testing new
growth strategies with their senior leadership team.

In the sections that follow, we briefly discuss the
concept of growth through space and the need to
link value propositions to the firm’s resources and
capabilities to create an effective growth strategy.
We then describe how circle mapping works and why
it works in terms of leveraging key principles of
strategy and space, and the benefits of using
knowledge visualization to conceptually map the
firm’s growth possibilities. Last, we offer steps for
applying circle mapping and illustrate with a case
example from practice. For each step, we also
provide guiding questions to facilitate the
leadership team’s progression through the circle
mapping process.

2. Circle mapping origins

2.1. The principle of occupying space

The idea of occupying space can be traced to early
Chinese military writings by Sun Tzu (1910/2005) in
The Art of War. Sun Tzu advocates for winning
through a series of small encounters with the overall
goal of occupying space, rather than conquering
the enemy through one decisive battle. Sun Tzu’s
idea directly aligns with the Chinese game called
Go. The objective of Go is to tactically place stones
on the board with the purpose of occupying as
much space as possible (Lai, 2004). In contrast,
traditional Western thinking tends to view warfare
and strategy like a chess game (Lai, 2004) in which
the goal is to take out as many opponents as possible
while moving forward. The idea of occupying space
is a change in mindset for many senior management
teams that typically follow a chess-like logic of
attacking competitors head-on, rather than
following the logic espoused by Sun Tzu and used
in the game of Go.

We analogize Sun Tzu’s concept of fighting for
geographic space that is occupied by enemy troops
to businesses fighting for customers’ cognitive D

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287 Circle mapping your firm’s growth strategy

space that is occupied by rival offerings. Both
conceptions of space are fluid. The geographic
space shifts as the enemy moves and repositions
its troops, and the customers’ cognitive space shifts
due to changes in technology and rivals’ actions. In
business, firms enter consumers’ cognitive space by
offering a value proposition that includes the
attributes desired by consumers and must compete
with rivals offering similar value propositions.
Customers’ perceptions of the rival offerings
ultimately shape their decisions about which
offering they will purchase.

Sun Tzu’s concept of space empowers CEOs to
move beyond the idea that growth strategy involves
moving from the current situation to a defined
future target, as shown in Figure 1A. We argue that
successful strategies should include multiple
pathways to growth, while recognizing that these
opportunities can only occur if CEOs have a tool that
encourages a discussion of a full range of options.
Applying Sun Tzu’s ideas to business prompts
leaders to view growth as a series of smaller
conquests, following any number of pathways to
occupy new customer spaces, as shown in Figure 1B,
rather than assuming that a company should move
straight to their future target (Figure 1A).

To illustrate the concept of growth using multiple
pathways, we offer the example of 3twenty Modu-
lar, a company that started in 2009 with the idea of
building modular houses and offices out of used
shipping containers. Offering modular construction
allowed the company to compete on the basis of
lower price, delivery speed, customization, porta-
bility, and durability. The founders’ ultimate goal
when they started the firm1 was to build residential
units; however, they quickly discovered that the
residential housing industry was too competitive
so they focused instead on building work camps
for the mining sector. The decision to supply modu-
lar housing to the mining, oil, and gas industries was
triggered by a customer looking for specific value
proposition attributes (i.e., portable housing that is
customizable, inexpensive, and durable).

In 2012, the company diversified its revenue
stream when it started a rental division to lease
office trailers and car washes at construction sites.
Then, in 2013, 3twenty Modular won a major con-
tract to create large-scale barracks for a Canadian
military base, which expanded the size of the work
camps it traditionally supplied to exploration camps

1 Based on statements by the founders (McCrea & Willoughby,
2017) in a public presentation about the origin and growth of
their firm, as well as company information available on their
website: https://www.3twenty.ca/

Figure 1A. Conventional approach to growth strategy

Figure 1B. Occupying new customer spaces

and mining sites. In 2014, the firm shifted to
building modular office buildings, portable school
classrooms, and smaller residential units such as
cabins. By 2016, non-shipping container work
accounted for 67% of sales with recurring revenue
from over 100 rental office trailers and car washes.
By early 2017, the company was poised to expand
into full residential housing, thus realizing its origi-
nal goal using multiple pathways. 3twenty Modular
achieved its original goal only because it followed a
process of growing through multiple customer
spaces. If 3twenty Modular had focused solely on
targeting the residential housing market space, the
company most likely would have failed (Figure 2).

Circle mapping offers leaders the ability to map a
series of concentric circles where each circle
defines different sets of attributes that make up
the value proposition of future customers. Since the
concept of occupying space involves expanding out-
ward in any direction, circle mapping offers new
opportunities to compete against current and fu-
ture competitors. The above example demonstrates
that growth between circles typically progresses by
the introduction of new offerings (e.g., modular
housing led to demand for rentals and then a full-
scale modular work camp). Consumers’ cognitive
spaces can overlap, which creates opportunity for a
value proposition that may appeal to another set of D

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288 V. Bruni-Bossio et al.

Figure 2. Circle maps for 3twenty Modular

customers (e.g., the attributes of customization,
durability, and low cost also appeal to buyers of
modular offices and portable school classrooms).
This raises the possibility of leveraging resources
and capabilities to grow from one consumer space
to another, which we discuss in Section 2.2.

2.2. Aligning resources and capabilities to
deliver value propositions

To successfully deliver a value proposition, leaders
must identify the attributes of a compelling value
proposition that are specifically targeted at a size-
able group of customers who desire them. Leaders
must also ensure the firm has access to the requisite
resources (e.g., property, equipment, people,
financial) and capabilities (e.g., marketing, recruit-
ing, negotiating) needed to deliver these attributes
reliably. If any of these components are missing, the
firm will either fail to deliver the value proposition
or it will deliver a value proposition that is not
relevant to the customer segment targeted. Align-
ment is critical. For example, a firm can have
resources and capabilities to deliver a value propo-
sition, but not enough customers who are interested
in the value proposition. Similarly, if a firm designs a
value proposition for a group of customers that is
interested but it lacks the resources and capabili-
ties to deliver the value proposition, it will again fail
in its strategy. Success is dependent on alignment
between attributes of the value proposition for a
customer group, as well as the firm possessing and
mobilizing the necessary resources and capabilities.

Our approach draws on the value proposition
literature that defines value propositions in terms

of the key attributes of a product or service that
drive customer purchases (Lancaster, 1966; see also
Kim & Mauborgne, 2005). The attributes of a value
proposition can be functional (e.g., product
quality) or emotional (e.g., prestige). Separating
value propositions into their individual attributes is
useful for assessing whether the firm can access
the specific resources and capabilities needed to
deliver each attribute of the new value proposition.

To understand how forecasting the attributes of
future value propositions can assist leaders to stra-
tegically allocate a firm’s future resources and
capabilities for growth, consider the example of a
customer who buys a car from a dealership rather
than a private seller. Customers who prefer shop-
ping at a dealership may do so because they value
the interaction with the dealer’s sales staff, the
ability to test drive the vehicle, and the potential to
obtain financing, warranties, and service–— these
are all attributes of the dealer’s customer value
proposition. Understanding which of these attrib-
utes this segment of customers values most will
assist the dealership in understanding how to
allocate its resources and capabilities. Is it advan-
tageous for the dealer to invest more in training
high-level sales staff, or should it provide different
financing options? Customers who value the
relationship with sales staff may be very different
from customers who see financing as a critical part
of the deal.

2.3. How circle mapping was developed

We developed circle mapping to meet specific
business challenges around growth through a series
of consulting engagements in for-profit, nonprofit,
economic development, and public sector organiza-
tions over a period of 5 years. It emerged because
we discovered that conventional approaches to
strategic analysis, which typically analyze the
current state of the firm’s internal and external
landscape, can be enhanced with a visual tool that
can synthesize information for discussing growth
opportunities. To examine its resonance and effec-
tiveness, we used a case-based approach of creating
meaning by listening to participants’ descriptions of
their reality and observing their actions (Baxter &
Jack, 2008; see also Lather, 1992). This provides
practical, concrete knowledge that retains a
nuanced depiction of a reality (Flyvbjerg, 2006).

In the initial stages of its refinement and testing,
circle mapping received very positive feedback
from senior managers and directors because it
was visual, easy to understand, and promoted
an in-depth discussion of growth opportunities.
Managers also felt that conceptualizing growth by D

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[email protected] or 617.783.7860

289 Circle mapping your firm’s growth strategy

comparing future value propositions with needed
resources and capabilities promoted an intuitive
understanding of what was required to grow
successfully. Through practice, we revised the
framework to articulate the concentric logic to best
elicit effective discussions for planning a growth
strategy, and subsequently streamlined the identi-
fiers of each circle (e.g., current customers, next
customers, and future growth customers) to reflect
this progression. Figure 3 shows the relationship
between each circle and the progression.

3. Elements of circle mapping: The
three circles

3.1. The first circle: Current customers

The process of circle mapping examines the feasi-
bility of growth by delineating a set of concentric
circles that are each defined by different value
propositions. The first circle identifies the current
customers as those the firm is already successfully
targeting with its current value proposition using
existing resources and capabilities. The mapping
process requires that a firm articulate the specific
attributes of a value proposition offered to the
customers in this circle, and the current resources
and capabilities used to deliver this value proposi-
tion. Returning to the car dealership example,
current customers would be those who prefer a
value proposition that includes attributes such as
interacting with a sales person, test driving the car,
negotiating, consulting on financing options, and
driving home with a new vehicle.

3.2. The second circle: Next customers

The circle mapping process then identifies the next
customers as those who desire a value proposition
similar to that being offered to the current customer

but with meaningful differences in the level and/or
type of attributes. For the car dealership, this
might include those customers who want to research
vehicle options and prices online, but still prefer to
test drive the car and speak with a sales person
face-to-face. In assessing this circle, the dealership
must assess whether it has the online capabilities to
meet this demand and whether investing in these
capabilities is worth the return these potential (next)
customers might bring. In recent years, many car
companies have tried to attract this type of customer
with website capabilities that allow customization
of vehicle orders with particular specifications and
add-on features (e.g., Toyota’s build and price
interface).

3.3. Outer circles: Future growth
customers

Circle mapping identifies future growth customers
as those desiring a value proposition that requires
significant adaptation or addition to the firm’s
current set of resources and capabilities in order
to deliver this new customer value proposition.
Entering this circle represents a significant
investment in resources, but may also yield
significant rewards. The car dealership may want
to offer electric or hydrogen fuel cell cars, which
include a value proposition that is related to,
but different from, conventional fuel-powered
vehicles. Movement to this circle would require
updating the dealership’s parts and service
capabilities, changes to marketing and communi-
cations with customers, and potentially new
salespeople who understand the product. The
company may also need to provide after-purchase
assistance beyond what is needed for a traditional
car, or lobby the government to provide abundant
vehicle charging/fueling stations and tax relief
when purchasing electric/hydrogen vehicles. Again,
the dealer would need to assess the risk and return

Figure 3. Circle maps of current, next, and future growth customers

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290 V. Bruni-Bossio et al.

of allocating resources and capabilities to this
emerging customer segment.

4. Benefits of circle mapping

By asking leaders to conceptualize growth as
occupying space, circle mapping promotes a
strategic discussion of how to adapt a firm’s
business to offer new value propositions to new
target customers. Conventionally, a growth strategy
to enter new markets involves offering new
products to existing customers (i.e., market
development) or new products to new customers
(i.e., diversification) (Ansoff, 1965). Inherent in this
type of growth strategy is the need to expand a
firm’s core business to target the needs of new
customer segments (Zook & Allen, 2003). Circle
mapping assists leaders with strategy formulation
by visually prompting a discussion of the different
pathways toward which resources and capabilities
can be directed to deliver future value propositions.
Below we outline how knowledge visualization is
integral to overcoming cognitive blinders and other
challenges faced by leaders when discussing
strategy. We also provide an explanation for how
aligning resources and capabilities to occupy a
future space assists leaders engaged in the process
of growth strategy formulation. The overall result is
that circle mapping stimulates an interactive
discussion about strategic options in terms of their
desirability, feasibility, riskiness, and profitability.

4.1. Leveraging knowledge visualization
with circle mapping

The strategy development process can be plagued
by information overload (Eppler & Platts, 2009) as
leaders must simultaneously assess their resources
and capabilities, macro trends, rivals’ strategies,
performance data, and more. Eppler and Platts
(2009) identify three specific types of challenges
that occur in the strategic planning process:
cognitive challenges (i.e., how managers think
about strategy), social challenges (i.e., the need
to communicate and coordinate strategy in
organizations that involve complex networks and
perspectives), and emotional challenges (i.e., the
struggle to motivate people at different levels and
ensure engagement throughout the organization).

Ultimately, strategy tools need to provide
decision-relevant information that can be “ sampled,
retrieved, and integrated” (Oppenheimer & Kelso,
2015, p. 283). Knowledge visualization improves
the effectiveness of strategy tools as it enhances

the ability to “ create, assess, reference or transfer
insights, experiences, attitudes, values, expecta-
tions, perspectives, opinions, and predictions”
(Eppler & Burkhard, 2007, pp. 112— 113). Knowledge
visualization assists with the creation of new and
innovative ideas, and can be particularly useful in
strategy because it enables recall, reconstruction,
and application of information (Eppler & Burkhard,
2007).

Using knowledge visualization in a group
process can be enhanced by using templates and
sketches (Eppler, Hoffmann, & Bresciani, 2011;
Suthers, 2001). Eppler and Platts (2009, pp. 44)
demonstrate that visual representation of data is
superior to verbal or written data for overcoming
“ paralyses by analyses” and evaluation biases,
and it can also increase participants’ creativity.
This is supported by research showing that
teams using a combination of visual sketches
with other tools are particularly effective in
achieving a higher level of objectivity and creativity
(Eppler et al., 2011).

Circle mapping exemplifies knowledge visualiza-
tion by integrating multiple levels of knowledge in a
graphic–— essentially creating what Eppler and
Platts (2009) describe as a conceptual map–— that
enables complex transfers of nuanced information
(Eppler & Burkhard, 2007). As a method of knowl-
edge visualization, circle mapping mitigates the
cognitive challenges of strategy by encouraging
leaders to jointly create a visual articulation of
their future strategy. Leaders use a discussion for-
mat to both identify value propositions in each
circle and the resources and capabilities needed
to occupy each circle. This places leaders and their
executive teams in the active role of developing the
visual frame, which enhances creativity and buy-in
across the team.

Circle mapping can also help to address social
challenges, including divergent views, incomplete
communication, and difficulty coordinating action
steps (Eppler & Platts, 2009). By facilitating a
discussion of possible future growth strategies,
circle mapping provides a platform for fleshing
out different perspectives and arriving at mutual
understanding of both the future challenges
and the possible strategies–— all of which are
demonstrated benefits of conceptual maps
(Eppler & Platts, 2009). For so-called emotional
challenges or issues of employee engagement,
circle mapping provides a more active platform
for engaging multiple stakeholders in the strategy
development process, and creates a visual
representation of the strategy that is both
informational and motivational (Eppler & Platts,
2009). D

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291 Circle mapping your firm’s growth strategy

4.2. Strategic advantages of aligning
strategy and space

Traditionally, the customer value proposition has
been considered an exchange of value between
a firm and its targeted customers for a price
(Anderson & Narus, 1998). A company’s growth
strategy involves developing compelling value
propositions that are attractive to customer
segments in future market spaces. The concept of
circle mapping evolves this thinking to align with a
service-dominant logic, where customers decide if
they desire the offering (Vargo, Maglio, & Akaka,
2008). This changes a leader’s perspective from
“Here is our product, will customers buy it?” to
“What do our customers need and can we provide
it?” In order to successfully develop compelling
value propositions for a future market, circle map-
ping combines customer centricity (Sheth, Sisodia,
& Sharma, 2000) with a market-driven approach
whereby companies define the space they are en-
tering in terms of meeting the customers’ needs
with the firm’s new value propositions (Gnecchi,
2009). A value proposition delivery system outlines
the resources and capabilities needed to efficiently
and effectively create value for customers (Vargo
et al., 2008). Circle mapping expands on this by
incorporating the notion of adapting resources and
capabilities to meet the value expectations of the
customers targeted within the new market space.
This component answers a vital question: “Can we
provide it?”

The process of circle mapping ensures that the
decision to target future customers involves a
strategic assessment by leaders of how well the
firm can align or adapt resources and capabilities
to meet the expectations of these future custom-
ers. This requires forecasting both the future needs
of customers and the future resources and capabili-
ties of a firm to profitably meet those needs. The
resource-based view (RBV) assesses the company’s
resources and capabilities relative to those of
current competitors to determine whether a
competitive advantage exists (Barney, 1991). The
RBV does not assess, however, whether the firm’s
resources and capabilities would be successful in
new market spaces (Priem & Butler, 2001). Circle
mapping extends RBV by asking whether the
firm’s current resources and capabilities can be
leveraged to produce new value propositions to
serve customers in new circles.

A common framework to identify growth
opportunities using value propositions is Kim and
Mauborgne’s (2005) Blue Ocean Strategy. The goal
of Blue Ocean Strategy is to make the competition
irrelevant by using visual tools, such as a strategy

canvas, as part of a four-step process to identify
new or revised versions of products/services that
can be introduced into markets where there are not
any direct rivals. Circle mapping extends Blue
Ocean Strategy in three ways:

1. Blue Ocean Strategy only focuses on competing
where there are no competitors, while circle
mapping allows managers to consider entering
market spaces where there are competitors.

2. It addresses a critique by Kraaijenbrink (2012),
who argues that Blue Ocean Strategy encourages
managers to ‘swim too far’ and misjudge their
firm’s strengths or weaknesses as represented by
the current set of resources and capabilities.
Circle mapping addresses this shortcoming by
evaluating the ability of the firm’s resources
and capabilities to deliver new value proposi-
tions.

3. We have found that circle mapping is easier to
explain and use with leaders than Blue Ocean’s
four-step process.

By prompting the assessment of how a firm’s future
resources and capabilities can be leveraged strate-
gically over time to successfully deliver new value
propositions, circle mapping provides a roadmap
for growth. Firm resources, such as specialized
knowledge, patents, and manufacturing plants,
along with capabilities such as communications
and marketing, can all be leveraged from one circle
to focus on targeting new customers in the next
circle. Circle mapping enables an intuitive compar-
ison of the firm’s current situation with its future
aspirations, which further promotes discussion of
the various options for achieving long-term growth
and the associated risks. The visual cost-benefit
analysis demonstrates that the greater rewards
associated with movement into the outer circles
also come with the cost of committing more re-
sources and capabilities. This discussion highlights
the firm’s readiness for growth by reflecting on
different strategic options and determining
whether allocation of resources to a specific
circle offers a strategic platform to compare the
cost-benefit of each proposed growth option.

5. Circle mapping steps: How to use
this tool

We outline a step-by-step approach to circle
mapping using an example from a small consulting
firm. Although the firm had developed a good D

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292 V. Bruni-Bossio et al.

reputation for providing training and consulting
services to local businesses and organizations, it
wanted to significantly grow its revenues. Circle
mapping was used by the firm’s leaders to create
a growth strategy to increase revenues and
profitability by selling a greater proportion of
high-margin consulting services (see Figure 4).
For each step below, we describe the circle mapping
process and outline how circle mapping was applied
to generate growth effectively in the consulting
firm. We then provide guiding questions that leaders
may use to facilitate a discussion through each step.

5.1. Step 1: Determine value propositions
of different customer circles

The first step of circle mapping involves preparing
the leadership team to think differently about
strategic growth. Rather than using goals and
targets to represent future growth and asking
managers to achieve these, circle mapping offers
a visual and spatial frame to ignite a discussion of
growth options. To achieve this, the leadership
team first needs to define the value propositions
offered to current and future customers. In our
consulting work, we have found that leaders are
an ideal source to identify the value propositions
and customers in the circles because, as experts,
they can ask and answer significant questions: Who
are the right customers to target and what
attributes do these customers want? Once the
current and future customers and their associated
value propositions are identified, they should be
placed onto the circle map. The future customers

and value propositions that are characterized by
greater rewards (offering better returns with higher
risk) should be placed in the outer circle(s). Each
circle should also include a label. Since a firm’s
leadership team has its own understanding of the
industry in which it operates, it is best suited to
assign meaningful labels to customer types that are
relevant to their industry. Consumer data and
industry experts can assist leaders in determining
the attributes of value propositions for current
customer groups while forecasting tools, such as
a strategy canvas (Kim & Mauborgne, 2005) or stra-
tegic value curve analysis (Sheehan & Bruni-Bossio,
2015) can assist with developing future value
propositions (see Table 1 for questions that can
guide the team through Step 1).

In our case example, during Step 1 of the process,
the leaders of the consulting firm determined
the value proposition (current and future) for
customers in each circle and placed them according
to their current and potential rewards. The circle
map developed for the company included labeling
each type of customer with a title that made sense
to the leaders illustrating a progression of rewards
(shown in Figure 4).

Figure 4. Circle maps for consulting firm

5.2. Step 2: Identify future resources and
capabilities needed to deliver future
value propositions

Step 1 concludes with a visual representation of the
firm’s current and future value propositions and
customers, and the team must now determine what
is needed to deliver the value proposition to these
customers and whether the firm is capable of
delivering it. To do this, the firm’s leaders must
discern whether the current resources and capabil-
ities can be adapted to deliver the attributes of the
new value proposition in an outer circle. This should
also involve a discussion around feasibility and the
trade-offs of targeting one circle over another.
Using the circle map, the leadership team must
co-create a visual outline that lists the key
resources and capabilities needed for each circle,
and assess whether they can feasibly adapt the
resources and capabilities over time (see Table 2).

Returning to our case example, leaders of the
consulting firm used the circle map as a guide during
growth brainstorming discussions and generated a
list of key resources (e.g., trainers, consultants,
intellectual property) and capabilities (e.g.,
marketing, sales, proposal writing) needed to
target each circle. When considering how to match
resources and capabilities with customer types in
the outer circles (e.g., national firms), a recruit-
ment plan was devised to ensure the firm had access D

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293 Circle mapping your firm’s growth strategy

Table 1. Example questions for circle mapping: Step 1

Questions

1. What customer(s) do you rely on most for revenue
generation today?

2. What are the attributes of the value proposition
demanded by these customers?

3. What label describes the common thread among these
customers and value propositions?

4. What customer(s) would you want to target as the
next step in the evolution of this business?

5. What are the attributes of the value proposition of
this next customer?

6. What label describes the common thread among these
customers and their value propositions?

7. Which customer(s) would you want to target as the
long-term goal of this business?

8. What are the attributes of the value proposition of
this future customer?

9. What label describes the common thread among these
customers and their value propositions?

Sample Answers

Small organizations looking to grow revenues and
enhance efficiencies

Tools, training, explanation, ‘handholding through the
change process’

Not-for-profit organizations and small businesses

Larger organizations focused on growth or experiencing
threats from new competitors

More sophisticated analysis, ongoing client
relationships, state-of-the-art solutions

Economic development agencies and government-
owned corporations

Large for-profit companies and government-owned
corporations looking to enhance current success

State-of-the-art solutions, timely service, and high-level
reporting

National and international corporations

Note: Sample answers are provided using the consulting firm in our case example to illustrate.

to people with the capabilities needed to serve the
new target customers. This involved recruiting
consultants and trainers with specialized expertise
and writers with experience writing consulting
project proposals for these larger customers. These
individuals were recruited months before there
were consulting engagements for them to work
on. Since there was a considerable lag time in
getting contracts, sales calls were targeted at
future customers concurrently with networking
for experienced professionals to ensure work would
be available once customers were on board. At the
same time, a new marketing strategy was imple-
mented that involved creating sales brochures,
contacts, and initiatives that could apply to winning
projects from clients across multiple circles.

5.3. Step 3: Select the most favorable
growth scenario

This step involves engaging the team in a discussion
of the risks and rewards of each growth option
(e.g., stay in the current circle, move to the next
circle, or move to a circle further out). Rewards are
determined using forecasting and other analytics,
while risks represent the assessment by leaders of
how much adaptation of resources and capabilities
is needed along with the tangible and intangible
costs of resource allocation. Staying in the current
circle could be considered a low risk, low reward
growth strategy. Successfully targeting a new

customer segment in the next circle requires
successful alignment of resources and capabilities
to deliver the attributes of that customer’s
value proposition. Longer-term growth strategy
includes assessing the true feasibility of targeting
customers in outer circles against potential
rewards. Leaders must assess if customers in a
given circle add enough value to be targeted with
future resources and capabilities. We recommend
examining the risks and rewards of each circle as a
standalone process in a brainstorming discussion.
Once each circle (and the customer/value
proposition and resources and capabilities within
it) has been considered, the risk and reward analysis
can be expanded by juxtaposing the allocation of
resources and capabilities between circles. The
concentric logic assists in this analysis because
outer circles are potentially more risky, more costly,
and more rewarding than those closer to the center
(see Table 3).

In the case example, the consulting firm’s leaders
compared possible combinations of customers in
the future against the resources and capabilities
needed to serve these customers. Discussion
revealed that the best course of action was to
continue serving nonprofit and small business
clients (i.e., current customers) with limited
resource allocation for the purpose of generating
cash flow. Capital, time, and resources were then
directed at occupying the space of economic
development agencies and small corporations D

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[email protected] or 617.783.7860

294 V. Bruni-Bossio et al.

Table 2. Example questions for circle mapping: Step 2

Questions Sample Answers

1. For each circle, what resources and For not-for-profit organizations and small businesses
capabilities are needed to deliver the value
proposition? � Trainers and consultants with basic consulting skills and knowledge of

management tools

Economic development agencies and government-owned corpora-
tions

� Experienced consultants with an MBA or other credentials, proposal writing
skills, enhanced marketing knowledge

Create a new marketing campaign to reach these clients

National and international firms

� High-level marketing to these clients, consultants with national reputa-
tions, and ability to build and maintain high-level relationships with clients

2. Does our firm have these resources and Non-profits and small businesses
capabilities? � Yes, no need for additional resources or capabilities

Economic development agencies and government-owned corporations

� No, the firm needs to acquire and/or develop these
National and international firms

� No, the firm needs to acquire and/or develop these
3. If not, what fi would our rm have to do to Simultaneously develop and execute a plan to do the following:
acquire


or develop these resources a. and continue to serve current customers

capabilities, and how long would this take? b. create marketing materials targeted at firms identified in the growth
areas

c. perform business development in the growth areas and win contracts
from firms in these areas

d. recruit consultants that support the expanded scope of clients

Note: Sample answers are provided using the consulting firm in our case example to illustrate.

(i.e., next customers), and winning contracts
from government-owned corporations (i.e., future
growth customers).

This process focused on leveraging success in the
inner circles (small firms and economic agencies) to
win consulting contracts from firms in the outer
circles (national and international firms). Circle
mapping assisted with the realization that once
government-owned corporations were successfully
targeted, the same consultants, trainers, and
proposal writers could be used to target national
and international firms. In other words, growth in
the outer circles would not need to focus on
recruitment, but rather on refinement of the
processes used by the consultants, trainers, and
proposal writers.

The successful implementation of a growth
strategy in the consulting firm increased revenues

by 300% over a 3-year period. Many government-
owned corporations had been successfully targeted
and resources were already being deployed toward
winning jobs from national and international firms.
The consulting firm’s leaders agreed that circle
mapping was beneficial as it allowed them to
map a feasible path to profitable growth for two
primary reasons. First, it helped them generate
ideas and provided a path to access new
opportunities, and second, it facilitated creativity
in planning and developing the strategy. The
leaders remarked about the simplicity of the
mapping process and how it made it easier to
conceptualize opportunities that they might not
otherwise have considered. Perhaps most
importantly, they felt it put them ‘in the driver’s
seat’ in the strategic process versus reacting to
their competitors passively. D

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295 Circle mapping your firm’s growth strategy

Table 3. Example questions for circle mapping: Step 3

Questions Sample Answers

1. What are the potential risks and rewards
associated with each circle?

For not-for-profit organizations and small businesses

� Stagnation and inability to meet partners’ growth objectives
Economic development agencies and government-owned
corporations; national and international firms

� The biggest risk is the opportunity cost from the time and effort
spent recruiting new consultants and developing relationships with
growth area clients. Other threats include reputational risk if we
win business but are unable to deliver what we promised to the
clients.

� Rewards include more engaging projects, increased reputation of
the firm, higher-value contracts, and revenue diversification.

2. Are there any circles that offer rewards that Yes, all of the outer circles:
outweigh the risks? � Economic development agencies

� Government-owned corporations
� National and international firms

3. Can we allocate resources and capabilities to Balance opportunities with recruitment: make sure new
these circles while still ensuring we can serve our consultants are ready and available when the contracts are
current customers? If so, how long will this take? won.

4. Which circle should we target as the next step Economic development agencies
for growth?

5. Are there circles we want to prepare to occupy Leverage success with economic development agencies to
in the future by starting to develop resources and pursue government-owned corporations, followed by national
capabilities? and international firms.

Note: Sample answers are provided using the consulting firm in our case example to illustrate.

6. Potential obstacles in circle
mapping

Circle mapping is a strategy visualization tool that
facilitates a process for generating high-reward
growth possibilities in the outer circles. The tool
is appropriate for firms in all industries where
customers have preferences beyond just paying
the lowest price. If the battle for consumers is
based solely on having a basic offering at the lowest
price, then the tool is not applicable. However, if
there is a significant set of customers who are
willing to pay for a differentiated offering, then
circle mapping is an appropriate tool to generate
growth options. Firms that offer more than one
value proposition are a special case. These types
of firms need to prepare circle maps for each value
proposition offered as the discussion of each
value proposition will lead to generating different
opportunities for growth.

Ambitious leaders are cautioned against
attempting to grow too quickly or to occupy too
many circles at the same time, either of which may

strain their firm’s resources and capabilities.
Successful growth involves a tradeoff of scope
and reach (Burgelman & Doz, 2001), sustaining
the firm’s current performance while leveraging
the resources and capabilities in new market
spaces. Circle mapping can help identify the risks
and opportunities involved in moving into new
spaces, but leaders must avoid focusing only on
opportunities while ignoring risks.

A limitation of circle mapping is its reliance on
the amount and quality of data available to the
senior management team regarding the potential
of its resources and capabilities to produce new
offerings, and preferences of consumers and rivals’
value propositions in the outer circles. Like all
strategy formulation tools, circle mapping is only
as effective as the assumptions that are brought to
the table. The process must be accompanied by
due diligence to ensure that assumptions about
the target market, attributes of the customer value
proposition, and the resources and capabilities
needed to deliver the value proposition are well
understood. Last, the firm must be able to fund the D

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growth initiatives and have the requisite organiza-
tion structure and reporting systems to effectively
implement them.

7. A new tool for development

Circle mapping assists leaders with the difficult
task of generating and evaluating growth
opportunities by combining Sun Tzu’s idea of
occupying space with marketing and strategy
literature on value propositions. Circle mapping
engages knowledge visualization to mitigate
cognitive challenges when formulating strategy
by generating multiple potential pathways for
growth. As a conceptual map, it mitigates social
challenges by promoting multiple perspectives in
the strategy, and it reduces emotional challenges
by assisting with communication and information
sharing.

By prompting leaders to think about growth as
occupying space, circle mapping conceptualizes
growth as aligning future value propositions
with the firm’s future resources and capabilities.
Circle mapping ignites strategy development by
simplifying a long-term growth strategy into an
intuitive diagram that leaders can use to generate
strategic decisions about how to grow. By having
leaders visually depict and justify where and why
they want to grow, circle mapping helps firms
conceptualize a profitable future and then
confidently move toward it.

Acknowledgment

The authors would like to thank Dr. Marjorie
Delbaere and Ed Pas for their insights and
suggestions.

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  • Circle mapping your firm’s growth strategy
    • 1. Visualizing growth strategies
    • 2. Circle mapping origins
    • 2.1. The principle of occupying space
    • 2.2. Aligning resources and capabilities to deliver value propositions
    • 2.3. How circle mapping was developed
    • 3. Elements of circle mapping: The three circles
    • 3.1. The first circle: Current customers
    • 3.2. The second circle: Next customers
    • 3.3. Outer circles: Future growth customers
    • 4. Benefits of circle mapping
    • 4.1. Leveraging knowledge visualization with circle mapping
    • 4.2. Strategic advantages of aligning strategy and space
    • 5. Circle mapping steps: How to use this tool
    • 5.1. Step 1: Determine value propositions of different customer circles
    • 5.2. Step 2: Identify future resources and capabilities needed to deliver future value propositions
    • 5.3. Step 3: Select the most favorable growth scenario
    • 6. Potential obstacles in circle mapping
    • 7. A new tool for development
    • References