A while ago, fellow Ottawa blogger Kneale Mann wrote a post called Do you have a Strategic Plan. He made some good points about why we should have plans, which got me thinking of some lessons I learned going through some hard-fought battles over plans.

As a marketer, the most critical component to your plan is out of your control – it’s your customer. Startups and smaller businesses that make plans without a representative sample of clients are actually running a big risk. This is because you never really know what your customer’s world looks like and so, instead of sitting in a closed room planning what customer problems you’ll solve, you’re better off going out and getting a customer and THEN seeing what needs solving.

The Rule: Plan for an Unruly Future

I’ve seen some of the fifty-page business and marketing plans Kneale talks about. It isn’t the plans specifically that are the problem, it’s the painful, politically-charged process of setting the plan that’s the problem. I wish that planning exercises didn’t have to be so hierarchical – it breeds ‘org structure abuse’ – so I propose two simple rules that will minimize this:

  • Bosses must not delegate down the tasks they don’t want to do.
  • Front-line staff shouldn’t use planning as an excuse to procrastinate. Planning, according to one cynical definition, means “to assess the things to be done in order to determine which you cannot get done until tomorrow, later this week, or the dawn of the next century.”

While Kneale is right that companies that don’t properly plan fall short of their goals, I think we’ve got to admit that things hardly ever go according to plan. Whether it’s the economy in general or some specific external event that interferes with your plan (I had a broken leg this year that I didn’t plan on), the result is the same. In my opinion, plans really outline what you do and don’t know. A good marketing plan, for instance, should include tasks that you’ll do during the period to plug your knowledge gaps so that by the end of the month/quarter/year, you know enough to make wise plans for the next cycle.

So how do we do planning in the real world? At the one extreme, you could bury your nose in a planning document for a very long time. At the other extreme, you could say ‘Plan? Schman!’ and do everything “…by the seat of your pants,” as Kneale says. I’m advocating a middle way that balances these two extremes. Kneale and do I agree that companies need to reckon with strategic planning. As he puts it, “Plans are useless without action. If you take the required time to set out a Plan, then actually carry it out.”