‘[Most] corporate planning […] is like a ritual rain dance. It has no effect on the weather that follows, but those who engage in it think it does. […] Much of the advice […] is directed at improving the dancing, not the weather.’
This quote (from Russell L. Ackoff) has stuck with me ever since I attended a growth plan programme very early on in my brand management career.
Because it still, frequently, speaks to the truth.
It’s no simple task to pull an organisation together to shape integrated growth plans that involve the right teams and functions, are timed to the right processes and calendars, and deliver the right outputs for the various needs inside the business. Well done if you’ve managed that.
But because of this, all too often the push to gear the approach to a range of internal needs results in convoluted processes, overly complicated outputs, and outcomes that don’t fully deliver what was intended in the first place: growth.
How to create a successful growth plan
Growth planning is an exercise in shaping a business or brand to address needs in the market so that the business or brand succeeds in its aims. It’s the ultimate expression of a market orientation and requires the business to pull together to make informed choices based on external opportunity and need.
But having ambitious goals for growth is one thing; creating a successful growth plan is quite another. So what makes for successful growth planning? How can we get both the dance and weather to improve?
1 Connected and collaborative
The biggest unlock is the power of the collective. Creating a growth plan together ensures that decisions are jointly arrived at, reflect different expertise and interdependencies within the business and start life with broad buy-in.
The critical word here is ‘jointly’: not a series of handovers, not in parallel, but genuine collaboration. One that ensures all stakeholders have an agreed understanding of the situation, align on direction and objectives and create a plan that takes a genuine ‘omnichannel’ perspective (perhaps overused, but a useful concept that breaks down siloed thinking and takes the perspective of the end user or buyer rather than the channel).
The ’dance’ is important here: how to enable teams to work together in person at the critical points of the process, prioritising time to make sure that major decisions are made together and avoiding the ‘chucking over the fence’ scenario.
Let’s just check in on ‘team’. It’s not the brand team; it’s a growth planning team comprised of a core group who have a stake in the growth plan, including brand team members, but also those from the commercial business, from finance, from insight and so on. This may flex at key points, but it’s the core team that’s there throughout, and it’s the core team that ensures that critical people and processes stay aligned.
2 A common way
A bit like a great sports team that has its own style of play, a common ‘way’ of growth planning ensures that everyone starts with a clear understanding of how a growth plan works for their business.
This means starting with your own growth philosophy. What does ‘growth’ mean for your category and business? What do you know works, based on the evidence? How do you balance growth and sustainability?
And from this, what’s the ‘red thread’ that holds your plan together from beginning to end, making sure that every part plays a role against that growth philosophy?
The simplest version is a short set of questions with outputs and metrics that tell a story in words and numbers, each feeding the next. Anything that doesn’t help is removed (or relegated to the appendix, for those who like to keep things together), leaving a common framework that prompts teams to have the right discussions.
Growth only comes from external behaviour change, so at the heart should be a simple expression of the few key strategic choices that set out how that will be achieved – what are the key needs to be met, and what will the brand do for those people such that they choose to buy or use it?
This is not (always) about a higher-order purpose, but simply about being clear on the brand’s place in a world where we should no longer push solutions without a care for people or planet.
And here we come to templates. Most have a love/hate relationship with these: they give consistency of story, a sense of control, an ownable asset, and yet lead to accusations of box-filling, a masking of the real debates, something that might be consistent for all but doesn’t work particularly well for any one individual.
A necessary evil or not, templates play a critical role: they frame the right discussions and capture the decisions. And so they should be the simplest expression possible of the common ‘way’ – the few outputs that answer the questions and capture the answers.
Three key template rules:1 Aim for no more than ten: any more and you’re not clear enough
2 Perfection is the enemy of good: make them work for you and evolve as needed
3 If they need any interpretation, they’re too complicated
3 Rigorous preparation
With a core team collaborating around a common ‘way’, time spent together should be focused on decision-making, and therefore, a bit like painting a room, preparation is key.
This shouldn’t be left to the most junior member of the team or outsourced. It should be a broad, data-informed and honest assessment of the brand, the category and the wider world, explored from various angles, and that requires as broad an input as does the plan itself.
Start by looking backwards: what have you learnt from activating over the last year? What’s changed in the external environment? Which of your previous planning assumptions have been proven or disproven? Why?
And then project forwards: how will the external environment change in future? Who will be buying your category and brand? For what reason? Where are your strengths and blind spots likely to be? What will be the critical factors for success in the market for the life of the plan?
And, more broadly, what’s the potential impact of climate change on your category? What is your environmental impact through production and distribution, use (and re-use) and your choices of how to market and sell it? How well are you meeting the diverse needs of different communities and potential audiences?
Putting time and effort into robust, data-informed preparation, and consolidating that into firm implications and conclusions that all agree on, ensures a fertile basis for better choices.
4 Bias to action
Beyond an annual check-in and refinement, good strategy is unlikely to change too often. Its role is to create a tight brief that inspires impactful, creative, agile and aligned activation, pointed at the most promising external growth opportunities.
So, while there’s a purity and elegance about strategy, too much time spent finessing means less time on what will really make the difference: how to activate.
Working off an aligned set of measurable activation objectives is key to getting this right, or the ‘red thread’ from strategy is lost. Every member of the team should be clear on what success looks like, and that opens up the scope to think differently about the various activation levers available: Could different activities achieve the same ends? What’s worked or hasn’t worked in the past, or for others? How should the investment and channel mix change to deliver the extent of outcomes required?
This action-orientation becomes even more vital once the plan is ‘done’ and the ‘delivery rubber’ hits the ‘reality road’. As part of the process of building the plan as a team, all of whom have a stake in delivering it, time should be spent agreeing on how to make sure it is fully executed and embedded into the day job:
- How do you embed the decisions in the growth plan into your internal and external briefs?
- How do you measure and track activation to allow course correction and learning?
- How do you keep your growth plan alive?
- Does it live as an ‘always on’ digital format with a live scorecard, or gather dust in hard copy?
5 Tension in the bow
Having the right team, a great ‘way’ and detailed preparation are vital inputs to decision-making, but a quality growth plan benefits from some inspiration: there’s nothing like a bit of challenge and stimulus to help teams make better choices, define more ambitious and creative activation plans and find new ways to tell their story.
This can, and should, come from both inside and outside the business. The lowest hanging fruit is connecting teams together who’ve gone through similar challenges. What can they learn and share? How can they combine to crack challenges together?
And how have other businesses achieved growth in similar circumstances? Taking a growth planning lens to external examples and framing them through your ‘way’ can be a very powerful piece of stimulus for teams looking to go through a similar journey (and give them confidence in doing it as well as support in taking their decisions through the business).
Of course, going through the process of creating a growth plan is in itself a capability-building programme for the organisation and can form the centrepiece of any marketing or commercial excellence effort with the right support – so take the opportunity to insert some challenge and stimulus while teams are working together to help continually push for ‘great’.
6 Educate the business
A good growth plan, in its simplest form, plays two functions: capturing the right choices and telling the story of those choices. Once the plan has left the room, it needs to be brought to life to inspire the business, to excite those tasked with delivering it as well as those it needs to be ‘sold’ to.
Most do this well and put a lot of effort into it, through ‘inspiration decks’, conferences and selling days.
But how many educate those receiving the plan to understand what good looks like? It’s very easy to have an opinion on a piece of creative, but has the CFO been engaged in the evidence that has informed the growth choices? Can the sales team explain the rationale behind different investment priorities? Could a brand manager in a different market explain the ‘red thread’ that joins all the decisions together?
This comes back to the fundamental benefit of a good growth plan. It gives the business a common language, a common way of telling a commercial story, a common ‘contract’ between functions, but also, and most critically, a common way of understanding how to achieve growth for that business.
Because despite all the effort that needs to go into the dancing, it’s only the resulting weather that makes a difference.
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