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Power of thought

True strategic planning challenges marketers to focus their thoughts and channel their energy into addressing key business needs

missing image fileEvery year at about this time or a little earlier, we start the process of strategic planning. This annual planning process, for all its focus on analysis, or template completion, can easily fall into the apparently comfortable tactic of merely updating the activity from last year's plans. Often, however, what is really needed is a fresh and disciplined approach which can pay dividends.

Approaches to planning differ, depending upon the attitude and culture of the company involved, which in turn affect the relative importance given to different elements of the process and the output. Some companies are heavily financially oriented, making the desired output more focused on numbers than the thinking behind those numbers. Other organisations focus on the resource implications of the tactical plan, and particularly salesforce allocation and efficiency.

Not all companies perform truly strategic (long-term) market-centred planning, but all companies generally aim to produce a set of financial forecasts. The major differences are in the way they get there and, as a consequence, the basis on which those forecasts are derived.

First and foremost, the organisation needs to be clear about what issues can get in the way of developing a sound strategic plan before deciding on an appropriate approach.

Clearly, all planning is driven to an extent by profit and financial forecasts, but companies need to be clear about what else the plan has to deliver for the organisation, the individual, and the brand - the planning 'need' - otherwise the process used may be sub-optimal.

Planning process
Why does an organisation need a plan? What is it meant to deliver over and above the financial projections?

Many companies are often unaware of the issues and constraints that will affect the planning process and output, for example the local operating company situation. Are the right resources, the right experience and the right information available at a local level to develop and complete the plan? Can the local markets get the information they need to drive good quality thinking? If not, how can this be provided to ensure the right level of thinking is achieved? It could also be that the chosen approach is too sophisticated or inappropriate to deliver the required answers. For example, the process may have all the 'standard' elements of analysis but there is no thought given to what each element is telling them.

All companies have a structured process, but if this process does not drive the necessary thinking then the resulting plans can be limited. If the process does not challenge the planners to consider different ways of operating but is merely a set of agreed templates and a timeline for deliverables, the resultant forecast becomes simply a straight line projection from historical sales data, and activity remains the same as last year regardless of whether or not things are changing in the market.

This is the apparently 'safe' option, yet it rarely maximises return on investment for the organisation and, more often than not, is not safe at all.

Above all, the process needs to raise the right questions, stimulate debate both internally and with external stakeholders, and force conclusions from the analysis and interpretation of information that can then form the basis for strategy development.

Finally, senior management by their actions and questions often demonstrate that all they are really interested in are the numbers, with no challenge or credence given to the thinking behind those numbers. Even though a thorough process is used to arrive at a market-based forecast, senior management just focus on the revenue with or without profit. Sometimes the budget or forecast even comes before the planning and thinking, and at other times it is 'imposed' so the plan reflects how to achieve it, not whether it is at all achievable.

Planning trio
There are three very different approaches to strategic planning: The data-driven approach is based on hard data collected from a variety of sources, both primary panels and syndicated data, from which a market model is then built by brand from the bottom up. Issues are then identified but there seems to be no real focus on what drives success in local markets, or on what competitors will do and the impact of their actions. This approach can lead to 'more of the same', making a projection based on the previous year and no real change in approach.

While many companies may not use such an apparently numbers-focused approach, they still act in the same way, with the forecast being the key, rather than the rationale behind it. To overcome the inevitable local variances in both resource and/or experience and to ensure a consistent base for review, many companies utilise a template-led approach. This comprises a pre-defined plan with key headings that can be amplified or contracted, but with certain vital elements which must be completed.

This option works well as it provides a structured process for analysis, with check questions at each stage. However, in some cases we have seen that such an approach can still be very financially focused. Sometimes it does not analyse the brand and company strengths and weaknesses in a meaningful market-centred manner, to enable a market-led SWOT analysis and often there is still not enough competitive focus.

The next level is sometimes seen in the marketing excellence approach, where the organisation provides an integrated planning tool comprising standard marketing planning software. In a sophisticated example, this allows local working which is linked into a central supporting database, with aspects that can be adapted and others that are fixed.

The beauty of such a process is that it is transparent, allowing a clear overview of who is performing well, and enabling experience and successes to be shared. However, when this is a relatively new process, people tend to take time to get to grips with it resulting in ëimplementing the process' rather than really thinking about what each step is telling them. Moreover, for this approach to be used effectively, senior management must have a thorough understanding of the process so that they can interrogate the people who are developing the plan

Efforts to plan correctly can fail due to poor alignment between personal and corporate goals - people are often rewarded for achieving short-term deliverables with secure outcomes rather than longer term brand building and innovation, or driving change.

Problem solver

What works well in overcoming some of these inherent problems? Companies must develop an analysis base from a complete and effective structured process. Output should focus on alternative scenarios and 'what ifs' working from a base plan, thereby, concentrating on incremental growth and drivers that need to be addressed.

It is important to build market-based forecasts by brand at country level. This requires country plans and budgets built from the bottom up by brand and forecasts that are linked to hard data and clear market maps. Allow enough time for countries to make amendments based on sound strategic thinking and then finalise forecasts? do not just use Excel formulas. Balance the need for a 'quick' solution with a complete process (analysis and review). Value the process and align management with the strategy.

Key imperatives are to ensure a complete and effective structured process to develop the analysis base, with structured external and internal analysis, and check questions at each stage. The process should be transparent and reviewed by management to ensure the output is seen by senior management during the budget process. Multi-functional teams should build plans with all key stakeholders involved, but these should be led by marketing.

Recent surveys show that where companies use a good formal process, satisfaction with strategic planning is higher. Companies are looking more and more at processes that drive different strategies and/or activities. However, there is a demand for a stronger link in pharma between action and reaction, for instance, if we do X then Y will result.

Strategic planning should prepare executives to face the strategic uncertainties ahead, and serve as the focal point for creative thinking about the company or the brand's vision and direction. It should also be about making choices between competing priorities, focusing on strategic, as well as operational issues. This will ensure that progress against the strategic plan is monitored.

Tricks of the trade
There are a number of 'tricks of the trade' that help in strategic planning. Among the best practice companies, executives who implement strategy also make it, and plans reflect goals and challenges. It is important to use any plan to identify growth opportunities, both within and outside the core business. Monitoring progress against the strategic plan is critical and a key area for improvement.

Questions to answer in a strategic plan:

  • What is the scope/nature/dynamics of the market?
  • For what purpose, where, who is the customer?
  • How big are the opportunities? Where are the opportunities for growth?
  • Where are the most attractive opportunities?
  • What external factors/major events could have a positive or negative impact on my markets?
  • What are the key segments?
  • What capability is required to successfully compete? Where am I strong, where am I weak?
  • Which segments represent the most attractive commercial opportunities now and over the planning period?
  • What are the critical success factors?
  • What strategy or strategic options should we consider to evaluate optimal return?
  • What key business objectives should we aim to achieve?
  • Which strategy makes commercial sense ? what would I recommend?
  • What specific actions are required to successfully implement the chosen strategy?
  • What performance areas need monitoring?

It is important also that planning meetings are true 'conversations'. Simple 'tricks', such as having only a small number of the right people in the meeting, can pay dividends. The process also takes time, so more than one meeting is required. It is also important to avoid combining strategy reviews with discussions of budgets and financial targets because when the two are considered together, short-term financial issues tend to dominate at the expense of long-term strategic ones.

The ideal process leads to strategic decisions that allow the company to meet goals and challenges. It assesses risks as well as benefits, but is based on fact, focusing on strategic issues, and is therefore not merely tactical. The ideal process ensures that those who will carry out strategy are involved in developing it, builds shared understanding of market dynamics, and emphasises discussion of issues not process.

Planning should build 'prepared minds' through dialogue to make sure that all decision makers involved have a solid understanding of the business, its strategy, and the assumptions behind that strategy. Then it will be possible for them to respond swiftly to challenges and opportunities as they occur during the year. No strategy process can guarantee great flashes of creative insight, but much can be done to increase the odds that they will occur. The process can be used to challenge assumptions and open people up to new thinking.

True strategic planning challenges marketers to focus their thoughts and channel their energy into addressing key business needs: Planning should build 'prepared minds' through dialogue to ensure all decision makers involved have a solid understanding of the business.

Strategic planning: a summary
The key issues impacting on strategic planning are:

  • Not being clear about the planning 'need'
  • Not being aware of the issues and constraints that will affect the planning process and output
  • Approach too sophisticated or not appropriate to deliver the required answers
  • The financial forecast is all that matters, with the thinking behind those forecasts being ignored or not challenged/considered
  • Process not challenging people to think or act differently
  • Insufficient external focus: environment and/or competitors
  • Lack of real focus on (new) opportunities for growth
  • Poor expertise at local level
  • More tactical/operational than strategic focus

The Author:
Dr Paul Stuart-Kregor is a director at The MSI Consultancy and can be contacted at

11th June 2007


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