Market View: The Right Kind of Planning

A word to food marketers: Don’t get bogged down at either extreme of planning.

By John Stanton, Contributing Editor

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Planning is one of the most basic steps in any food business. One would not argue for a second that a company could be successful without both a strategic plan and an annual plan. However, I am also reminded of the quote attributed to Dwight Eisenhower, “Planning is everything, the plan is nothing.” I suspect Ike was referring to the fact that the planning process is one which causes management to articulate the key issues, develop goals and objectives and identify and specify the actions the company should take to achieve those goals and objectives.

What is often understated in the development of a plan is the uncertainty of all the assumptions that are either explicitly or implicitly made or not made. The generals, like Ike, understand that when one goes into battle, the ability to improvise and make crucial real-time decisions is essential; in fact tactical leaders are taught this. The unavoidable aspect of war -- including the marketing war -- is that the intelligence gathered is always incomplete to a degree, thereby making any decisions concerning war a bit foggy.

It's my opinion many American marketers have moved to the two extremes of planning. That is, some companies have created very structured planning processes that amount to no more than filling out charts and tables. From these, a list of tactical actions are described, to which we send our executives into the battle with the plan that describes their every move. On the other hand, I've seen companies that say nothing ever seems to go as planned so why bother to use the time to do it. Let's just take each day as it comes and make the best possible decisions.

As is often the case, neither extreme is likely to yield an optimal outcome. The drive for a perfect plan can be a waste of time and could be costing your business valuable time and money. Striving for perfection actually impedes creativity and innovation, yet paradoxically, seems to thrive in today's workplace, especially in the marketing discipline. Perfectionism is often a risk avoidance factor because in an effort to get it “all right the first time,” the least risky alternatives are employed.

For some reason the perfect plan is often perceived as a figurative medal pinned on one’s chest. A medal proudly worn by most efficient and competent people, who view it as the reward paid for providing top-tier performances in a chosen field. In reality, creativity and imagination actually encourage forward motion, not perfectionism. Making mistakes and learning from them can help a marketer to sustain the brand.

I cannot tell you how many employees I have met who bemoan the annual planning process. Not because it forces them to think about the future, but because it is an act of filling out forms and three or four days of meetings (often with hidden agendas) to create a planning document that is put on the shelf in every executive's office and not opened again until the next year’s planning meeting.

On the other hand I have seen the reverse. That is people who say, 'I have no idea what the future holds so why should I plan?' Or who say their business is so crazy the plan goes out the window on the second day. This seems to me to be just as ineffective as the “planning perfectionist.” The let's-wait-and-see approach means that in many cases the marketing planners haven't thought about what the possible outcomes or actions could be and have not brought to bear the resources to either respond or take affirmative-action.

Like most things in life, the optimal solution is somewhere in the middle. General Eisenhower understood in many cases the value of planning includes an estimate of your current resources, the positions of your competition both direct and indirect, and assessment of exactly what the unpredictable variables are. It is the process of planning that provides the values to the plan. On the other hand, Eisenhower knew once the battle got started, everyone in the fight needed to know what their mission was and what their options were.

It is my opinion many companies have taken away some of the “field options” of the frontline management in fighting the battle for sales and share. It seems top-down strategic and tactical planning is becoming dominant in the food industry.

Today’s rapidly changing environment will require a more flexible and responsive planning process. It will require giving more ability to tactical leaders to exercise their judgment. It will mean not planning how every dollar will be spent each year and telling lower management what to do exactly.

It will also mean training a new breed of tactical manager. Previous executives at that level were often judged on how closely they followed their orders. Their actions and opinions were often unwelcomed. Now we need people who, if their opinions are sought, they are knowledgeable enough to make good, on-the-spot decisions.

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