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The reasons for undertaking a B2B marketing strategic planning exercise are well established but too often I have seen the process hijacked or the result sitting on a shelf somewhere 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

The theory goes Strategy matches an organisations resources and capabilities with its objectives. It considers the restrictions on those objectives imposed by the environment in which the business operates. 

At its most basic level, a strategy is a means to get from point A (now) to the desired point B (the future). A solid strategy should deliver control and focus by delivering a series of targets and sub plans that permeate down through an organisation. All great in principle but:

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (A mid 19th century Prussian 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”

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

A business may assume if we do A then B will naturally unfold but the real world of business is populated by people and they do not always act (some  say rarely act) in a way that is predictable, or even logical.

A more realistic plan could be based on if A happens we do B or if C happens we do D but what happens if several issues do not fall into place as expected. People, markets and the world in general, is unpredictable. 

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.
  •         Communication / Drive / Relevance.

Analysis

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.

An appropriate analysis is time consuming and, let’s face it, not very exciting. The time and effort allocated to the process are 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 to a conclusion and what is not. While, as stated above, it is important to allocate sufficient time to the analysis process, it is important to avoid blind alleys with no relevance.

It is important to keep an open mind at all times and not make broad 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? Appropriate market segmentation is crucial. It is important to throw away preconceived ideas and assumptions. 

Expectations

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. He 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 future 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 for entry to this new market 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 failed to explain or convince those around him of its benefits. He kept analysis and product planning to himself and, therefore, the detailed planning to take the product forward 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 targets and outcomes is certain to ensure limited (if any) buy in by those who have to implement the plan and result in a complete waste of the resources.

Flexibility

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.

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.

Months, perhaps years, of planning went into D-Day. Eisenhower and his generals probably understood little would go to plan but they at least had a basic structure in place and had communicated it to those who needed to know.

They were probably well aware they would need to rely on their men in the front line and their immediate commanders to modify the plan (or what was left of it!) as the situation demanded. If the tanks did not turn up, or the enemy strength was more than expected the men on the ground needed to find their own way to get off the beach. 

Once off the beach, those in immediate command may have lost more men and resources than expected. They may be in completely the wrong place and without the support they had been promised but they would at least know what the plan required them to achieve as their next task. The detailed planning may have evaporated as soon as they hit the beach but the basic structure remained. 

There is a school of thought that planning and forecasting is a pointless exercise. The theory goes history is no predictor of the future, various biasses tend to cloud judgement and there is always the chance of completely unexpected circumstances. These factors combined make detailed planning useless.

I do have some sympathy for this view but perhaps Eisenhower was right. There is value in taking the time to analyse a situation. Detailed plans may be useless but studying the current situation and the various future scenarios that may come to pass is not.

Drive

After all your time and effort on analysis and planning you could have a strong, well thought out, plan. It may have sufficient flexibility to deal with the unexpected but unless that plan can be sold to those who need to implement it 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 through 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 the business in the 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.

Objectives remain important for the short to medium term but tend to be irrelevant in the long term. Overall the basic plan should be understood by all but it should be flexible and a living document that changes and adapts. Perhaps all that is fixed should be the start and end point.