From The Editor | September 15, 2021

Plan Like There Are No Rules

By Perry Rearick, Chief Editor, Follow Your Buyer

Female executive putting her ideas-iStock-903715608

One of the greatest benefits of my nearly three decades in the Army is that I served with some extraordinary problem-solvers. The best of them possessed planning skills that had been forged in complex military operations, not all of them successful.

When military operations aren’t successful, it is often due to poor planning, and specifically, self-imposed constraints by leaders when they communicated their planning guidance. Some of the best leaders I worked with established a personal tenet to “plan like there are no rules.”  This principle stood as a reminder to not build defects into plans with arbitrary constraints that aren’t linked to intended outcomes. Constraints and limitations tend to happen naturally, effective planning does not. We could all benefit from understanding how to “plan like there are no rules.”      

How Planning Really Happens

When asked, most organizations will describe their planning process like this--establish objectives, define supporting tasks, identify resources, set a timeline, determine how results will be measured, communicate the plan, and execute. When followed this process will lead to reasonably good outcomes, however, most of us don’t really plan this way.

Marketing is a fundamental, and essential, function of business along with finance and operations. But sadly, marketing is often plagued by poor planning practices, to include research, operations, communications, advertising, and business development.  

Planning conversations I’ve had with marketing communications professionals often go something like this.  

Marketing: I have great news! I have my budget for the year, and my plan is ready to go.

Me: That’s awesome, what objectives do you have?

Marketing:  Well, I think we’d like to run fewer print ads than last year and focus more on digital, who knows what tradeshows might be cancelled. I’m looking at weekly e-blasts depending on the price, segmented to key decision-makers.  

Me: Ok, sounds like you’ve identified some tactics, but what would you like to achieve with these e-blasts and what business outcomes are they supporting? Have you defined the key decision-makers for each of your product categories?

Marketing: We need to get as many opens as we can with the e-blasts, like CEO, presidents and maybe VPs. I’ll have to check on the business outcomes and get back to you if that is important. Can we move ahead with planning in the meantime? We need to roll this out in a month from now.

Before I’m accused of being harsh with marketing professionals, this is not intended to lay the blame at their feet. The above dialogue is often an indication of the planning guidance they received from their leadership.    

Better Planning Guidance Leads to Better Plans

The maxim “plan like there are no rules” doesn’t imply a chaotic, lawless activity, but rather a planning process that is free of illogically conceived constraints that lead to poor plans, disappointing results, and leadership wondering if marketing communications activities are worth the cost. The problem most often can be traced back to the initial guidance for the planning process. So, what is good planning guidance?

Large organizations conduct more formal planning processes that are often initiated by written guidance. In small organizations, planning guidance can be as simple as a brief conversation between the manager and subordinate team. Either way, if planning guidance is not intentionally developed and thoughtfully delivered, things can go awry. The challenge is to provide enough direction to facilitate planning without overly constraining their organizations to pursue market opportunities.

Leadership Provides Purpose, Direction & Motivation

Since my first formal introduction to leadership over 40 years ago, I’ve been reminded countless times that leaders provide purpose, direction, and motivation. With these three leadership imperatives in mind, here are some things to consider when offering annual planning guidance to your marketing communications teams.

Purpose

Clearly articulate the business outcomes for the plan that you are asking the marketing communications team to develop. Go ahead and re-read that last sentence. Despite how obvious this is, inclusion of this vital component in planning guidance is rare. Successful businesses have goals, they should be clearly defined for your marketing communications team. Consider marketing communications activities as enablers of your entire business development process, not just lead generators. Here are examples of communicating purpose:

  • Our goal is to grow revenue by 18% over the next year, that is an additional $1.8million.
  • With this level of growth, we expect to surpass the three competitors in this space who are currently ranked above us in annual revenue.
  • We expect this growth to come from three product segments, e.g. A, B & C, and new customers in North Carolina, Texas, and Colorado.
  • The marketing communications plan will be key to our growth and success for the year, put the best thinking into this and don’t withhold any ideas in this planning stage.  

Leaders will also want to mention new products, potential product phase-outs, and product R&D initiatives.   

Direction    

Offering direction is when the artful application of leadership is most needed, striving to offer enough direction without eliminating valuable courses of action that your team will deliver. Leaders must know their teams and provide direction that is commensurate with their abilities. Consider working more closely with them in areas for which you desire professional development and give them a little freedom to experiment and learn. Here are some examples of communicating direction:

  • The intent is to have a plan approved by me no later than November 1st so that we can begin executing on Jan 1st.
  • Schedule hour-long check-in meetings with me six and two weeks before the plan’s deadline and include the CFO and VP of sales in these check-ins too.
  • Coordinate with the CFO as soon as you have defined your initial budget requirements. I will make the final budget decision in our second check-in meeting.  
  • Do not plan for any additional department hires, consider outsourcing any work you cannot handle internally. You may also try to identify experts in the company who become key communicators for the things that will help us grow most.  
  • I’d like you to also include a size of market analysis for product segments A, B & C in North Carolina, Texas, and Colorado. During our first check-in, be prepared to confirm, or refute, the value of these markets toward meeting our annual goals.
  • The advertising portion of the plan should use media partners who can provide business intelligence as part of our advertising activities. I want to use this year to better understand the process our buyers use to make decisions.   
  • Include ideas on how we can better integrate marketing communications and sales to help prospects as they advance through the sales funnel.  We need to be more agile in our business development efforts. Develop methods to measure progress throughout the year in ways that help us understand correlations between marketing activities and sales. Plan for quarterly marketing updates with company leadership and propose the agenda at the final check-in.    
  • The final plan should be a single course of action that prioritizes the activities that most directly support our annual growth objectives.   

Motivation

If you are attracted to the art of being a world-class leader, offering guidance within the context of this third imperative can be the most personally rewarding. This is when you describe what success will look at the end of the year. Define what success will mean to the organization and to the members of the marketing team. Here are some things to include:

  • Our marketing communications plan for the year is a critical component for success.
  • If we hit our growth goal of 18% we will be able to add an additional manufacturing line, expand our R&D work and hire additional employees including three marketers. We will also increase our 401K employer match by 2%.
  • Additionally, marketing communications and sales will be functionally integrated, making us more agile in helping our prospects along their buyers’ journey.  

Experience tells me that planning is rarely done effectively. When businesses try to execute poor marketing communications plans, opportunities are missed, and organizational leadership is disappointed and left questioning the value of their marketing teams. The solution to this problem is leadership that provides purpose, direction and motivation when issuing planning guidance to their marketing teams.