The reasons for undertaking a B2B marketing strategic planning exercise are well established but too often I have seen the process hijacked or the outcome of the process sitting on a shelf gathering dust. Is it still valid to allocate significant resources to the traditional strategic planning process? Has the World moved on and is it now time for a different approach? We consider the issues.
The theory goes Strategy matches an organisations resources and capabilities with its objectives while considering the restrictions on those objectives imposed by the environment in which the business operates. Strategic decisions affect the long term direction of a business, they deliver control and focus by initiating a series of objectives, targets and sub plans that permeate down through an organisation. All great in principle but:
A 1st World War General said “no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy” (paraphrased)
Eisenhower said “plans are useless but planning is everything”
And Mike Tyson said “everybody has a plan until they take a punch in the mouth”
All should have known what they were talking about because if their plans went wrong it was possible somebody was going to die. For the record, I am a great fan of marketing strategy but to blindly stumble into the process thinking it is the cure for all sorts of business ills is a mistake. First, let’s look at some of the problems with the B2B marketing strategic planning process before suggesting a possible solution.
The Problem With Strategic Plans In B2B Markets
Of course, the relevance (or not) of the marketing planning process depends, to an extent, on the market in which a business operates but typical problems are:
- Failure to analyse the situation appropriately.
- Unrealistic expectations – Hijacking.
- Flexibility of plan.
- Communication / Drive / Relevance.
Market analysis is the foundation on which all good strategic plans are based. However there are three main problems
- Failure to allocate sufficient time and resources to the process.
- Lack of focus.
- A blinkered view.
Appropriate analysis is time consuming and, let’s face it, not very exciting. The time and effort allocated to the process is therefore often significantly less than it should be. To stress again, failure to analyse the situation appropriately will only ensure the B2B strategic planning process is built on false (or, at best, incomplete) data.
Given the complexity of the analysis task it is easy to lose focus on what is really important to follow through and what is not. While, as stated above, it is important to allocate sufficient time to the analysis process, time should not be wasted following blind alleys that yield no relevant data.
It is important to keep an open mind at all times and not make bland assumptions. It is all too easy to think, of course we know who our competition is, we know our key markets, our target customer base is clear, but are they? It is important to throw away pre-conceived ideas and assumptions.
I remember it well. In my early marketing career I worked with the Sales and Marketing Director on building a strategic plan for a medium sized manufacturing business. We were given the organisations expectations (the result of a recent board meeting) by the M.D. We then worked hard on the process for several weeks, diligently working through the analysis, undertaking internal and external discussions and progressing each step of the process.
One of the final steps was to present the analysis, our conclusions and the draft plan to the senior management team. After a half day of discussion we were reaching a satisfactory conclusion when in walked the company founder who was a brilliant innovator and technologist who had realised where his strengths lay and had delegated Managing Director responsibilities several years earlier.
His strong view was the carefully calculated growth and turnover figures should not be ‘X’ but should be ‘Y’(where Y = X++). This view was based exclusively on a new technology (and potential product line) he had been working on. He forced through his view that a value should be added for this technology with the detailed planning to be added later.
The result was a plan with no foundation, unrealistic expectations and (crucially) no buy in. Looking back the suggested technology and product line was at least 2-3 years ahead of its time but the founder fail to explain / convince those around him of its benefits and the detailed planning to take the product forward, for various reasons, never materialised.
I wish I could say the above was a one off case but I have seen several similar situations since in a variety of organisations. Setting unrealistic target and outcomes is certain to ensure limited (if any) buy in by those who actually have to implement the plan and result in a complete waste of the resources utilized to put the plan in place.
Perhaps one of the major reasons strategic plans are not implemented is they lack flexibility. They follow a rigid path based on assumptions about what will happen in future and what the market and competition will do in any chosen situation.
Unfortunately, nobody can know what the future holds. We may wish to believe if ‘X’ happens the logical thing for our competitors to do is ‘Y’ but competitors are run by people and they are entirely unpredictable.
Perhaps this is the main issue that is eluded to in the above quotations. What happens when the unexpected happens? What happens if we take that ‘smack in the mouth’ If we refer back to the carefully crafted plan does it have the flexibility to cope or is it so rigid that it is no longer applicable to the new situation.
After all your time and effort on analysis and planning you may have a strong, well thought out, plan with sufficient flexibility to deal with the unexpected but unless that plan can be sold to the masses and buy in secured it will be a complete waste of time and effort.
The word ‘sold’ is the key term as it has to be a standard sales exercise, illustrating the benefits and quantifying ‘what is in it for them’. With buy in secured a plan champion should be appointed to the difficult job of ensuring the plan is a reference document utilized in all key business decisions.
Whatever sub plans and objectives fall out of the main plan must be progressed and followed through and that can be difficult given the many competing business priorities. Many good plans founder because once put in place they are not referred to or utilized and the business continues to bumble along as it did before.
A Possible Solution
One possible solution is to work the theoretical strategic marketing process but only to a point. Analysis, I suggest, remains key as without it there can be no understanding of where a business came from, the environment it operates in, its strengths and weaknesses and what events may impact on the business in future.
With analysis in place it should be then possible to create a series of scenarios of what could happen in future and a basic outline plan of what the business should do if a given scenario were to come to pass. The most likely scenario can then be selected and the remainder of the planning process undertaken.
A balance then needs to be struck between a plan with sufficient detail to flow down through the organisation but flexible enough to be adapted to accommodate minor unexpected events. Should the worse happen and events conspire to make the current plan worthless the planning document remains valid with other scenarios and basic plans already in place.