Your Plan is Wrong from the Start

By Nick Urbani, Managing Director, Business Development

Assumptions get most marketing plans into trouble. At the start of a marketing plan you don't have knowledge. You have assumptions. Then what happens? You start off on a plan and realize the minimum budget to make a tactic successful is higher than you thought, the cost per action took longer than expected to decrease, and a city like Chicago is best place to start (not San Diego). In an environment where change and uncertainty are guaranteed, lets stop presuming that we can predict the market and realize that our plan, as we have it written or as its pictured in our heads, is wrong from the start.

So how do you plan in such a way that you come out with the right plan when you've accepted that you're wrong from the start? Use a discovery driven planning approach developed by Wharton professor Ian MacMillan and Columbia professor Rita Gunther. Venture capitalists use this method when investing in and growing start-ups because, just like at the start of a marketing initiative, there are more assumptions and critical unknowns than knowledge when starting a new company. VCs want to spend as little money as possible, while learning what they need to know about the business to either put it on the right track or to know that it won't succeed and cut losses. Since this is what we want to do when managing marketing initiatives, let's review a few guidelines to follow for your next planning session.

Prioritize Learning Over Results

In a conventional planning method, success means hitting your numbers. In a discovery driven planning method, success means turning critical assumptions into knowledge for the least possible cost. As you learn more your plan gets smarter. When your plan gets smarter the numbers improve. This also means you'll have to change your idea of failure. Conventionally, a revision to a plan signifies failure , but it should indicate learning.

Admit What You Don't Know

Force your team to outline all of the assumptions the plan hinges on during the planning process. Prioritize the key assumptions that, if answered, will drive growth. Next to each key assumption figure out what activities need to be undertaken to turn it into knowledge. Schedule milestones around when these key assumptions will be answered. Enough funding should only be provided to achieve the next milestone with no guarantee of continuation. Outlining what you don't know from the start will help you keep you disciplined well into the plan.

The result of following these two guidelines is a practical approach that allows teams to identify, manage, and leverage your company's marketing opportunities, while eliminating unnecessary risks. If your plan's assumptions change, which they will, you'll be organized to redirect the project as frequently as necessary or you'll quickly and inexpensively make the decision to terminate.

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