A major business strategy challenge that small and middle market business owners face is ambiguity. When facing big decisions, founders may struggle to uncover the right path forward. The reason? Entrepreneurship is a blank canvas, and many organizations are navigating new terrain for the first time. It can be difficult to know what steps to take along the way.

Here are three business strategy tools that can help provide a guide:

1. The Business Model Canvas

First proposed by business model theorist Alexander Osterwalder, the Business Model Canvas is a strategic management and entrepreneurship tool that helps founders design, describe, challenge, invent and pivot a business model. It's a one-page document that makes the whiteboarding and planning process easier.

Using this document, small and middle market business owners can outline key partners, activities, value propositions, cost structures, resources, channels and customer segments. The goal is to visualize how these separate parts fit together into a cohesive picture. Many entrepreneurs use this canvas to pitch to venture capitalists, consult with clients and make presentations.

2. "The Lean Startup"

"The Lean Startup" is a methodology and book by entrepreneur Eric Ries that teaches business founders how to navigate business risks and uncertainty. The framework explores ways that business owners and managers can bring products to market faster. It's designed for, and applicable to, organizations of all sizes.

For instance, one early stage technology company used Lean Startup methods to validate an early product idea before writing any code. Large organizations have incorporated Lean Startup methodology, too: GE uses Lean Startup to release prototypes faster and the federal government uses the Lean Startup strategy to troubleshoot and overcome technical challenges.

The value of the framework is simplification: Through experimentation, it becomes easier for entrepreneurs to identify and circumvent early points of friction and potential risk.

3. Empathy Mapping

If you're bringing a new initiative to market, you probably have endless questions swarming in your mind. What will happen if the product flops? Will my customers actually like what we have created?

Despite the time you take to answer these questions upfront, there's always a small chance that you could be wrong. That's where empathy mapping enters the picture. Rather than taking guesses as to what your customers want, you can rely on a structured process. It will allow you, through deduction and induction, to see what customer needs you might not be satisfying. Copyblogger provides a useful step-by-step guide to empathy mapping.

The Bottom Line

The best business strategy tools will help you build up the great ideas that are already in your mind. Identify some of your biggest cognitive pain points, and use these tools to solve them. Sometimes, you just need a helping hand to explore new ways of thinking. If you are looking for additional guidance, consider consulting a mentor or professional business advisor.

Tags: business strategy tools Eric Ries entrepreneurship tool Stanford University Business Development