Three Myths and Resulting Best Practices for Executives Who Dread Planning Season

Executives who are underwhelmed by plan presentations tend to blame it on the presenter – “some people are great storytellers, and others just aren’t.”

While there is some truth behind this statement, we see the following dangers in blindly accepting that 80% or more of plan presentations will be uninspiring:

  • High potential products, portfolios or divisions get under-funded because of an unimaginative strategic plan
  • Potentially-differentiating strategies are missed due to a planning process that favors form over function
  • Opportunities in plans presented late in the review period are over-looked because executive teams are bored and worn out

It’s true that any manager serious about career success should study how to present a strategic plan. But executive teams often overlook their role in contributing to a sub-optimal planning process.

The following are 3 myths that are often believed by executive teams at companies where there is a high degree of frustration with planning processes –and 3 corresponding best practices that will transform planning processes at your company.

Myth #1 – Being too rigid about planning formats and templates will stifle creativity

There’s a scenario we encounter often. Executives express excitement when their teams learn strategic marketing principles and tools to differentiate and powerfully position their products. After reviewing these plans, they ask us “what can I do to continue to foster these skills?”

When we reply that they should require certain strategic marketing frameworks be utilized in planning presentations, they say “I don’t want to limit people’s creativity.” Our answer: are you allowing creativity in the presentation of the financial frameworks of each plan?

Why do companies dictate certain financial formats in plan reviews but allow discretion in the strategic portion? Because they think that strategic marketing is more art than science, and that those with “the gift” will put together a great plan. What happens instead is highlighted by the dangers at the beginning of this article.

Best Practice: Provide a range of frameworks that can be used to highlight the key differentiating aspects of a strategy. It could be a change in segmentation, targeting, competitive positioning pricing, etc. Presenters don’t have to use all of them (believe us, you don’t want them to!), but they must choose some of them. You dictate financial frameworks so that you and your executive team can discern differences in financial opportunities across many plans. These strategic frameworks allow you to do the same for the actual strategy that will generate the financial results.

Myth #2 – Believing that your VPs and executive team have the skills to judge a plan’s quality – and do so in a consistent manner

We’ve seen some fabulous plans get squashed. Your executive team likely would have loved the approach, but you never saw it. Why? Someone in the review chain watered down or flat-out nixed the strategy.

There is no blame here – in fact, if you have to blame anything, blame it on misperceptions of marketing. For too long, the field has been thought of, as Dilbert put it, “liquor and guessing.” But, as mentioned above, there are sound strategic marketing principles just like in the accounting, financial, manufacturing and legal fields. They just aren’t nearly as well-known.

So you have a variety of mid-level managers with mostly technical backgrounds – but lacking marketing skills – modifying strategic marketing plans before you even see them.

Best Practice: Provide all plan reviewers with some basic knowledge about how to judge strategies – they are smart people, so this doesn’t have to be a big investment. Enable them to discern the quality of thought behind a strategic approach and ask good questions about differentiation plans, positioning efforts, pricing approaches, etc. Not only will more good plans get funded –the smart line managers who came up with them will feel more appreciated and motivated.

Myth #3 – Believing that planning season is going to be a grind no matter what, and that you just have to put up with boring presentations

In our decades long experience in mostly B2B industrial markets, we can honestly say that we’ve never seen a boring situation. We didn’t say that certain products aren’t less exciting than others (like industrial clasps and certain medical supply consumables).

But every market provides opportunities for differentiation, and every manager should feel compelled to try and find it. Sometimes, the most boring products provide the most interesting strategic quests.

Is this the spirit throughout your plan review period, or is the myth above truer than you would like to admit? Typically, the problem is the aforementioned one. A lack of strategic marketing frameworks and tools relegate difficult market circumstances to be settled not by creative strategies, but by margin-reducing price wars.

Best Practice: This best practice combines all the previous tips. Provide your company’s managers and executives with the tools they need to investigate all angles of differentiation, and train participants in the planning process to utilize them and/or evaluate their use. And make these frameworks mandatory in the development of all company plans.

We’ve seen these best practices transform planning for the companies that take them seriously. From a frustrating and often grinding, long process to an exciting and constant search for differentiation and uniqueness. From a numbers-centric snooze-fest to a market-centric exploration of how you plan to create, communicate and capture unique value in your industries. The one comment we hear most often in the first planning season following the implementation of these best practices? “Best planning sessions we’ve ever had.”

Want to discuss how Impact can help with your next round of strategic planning? Drop us a line here.

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