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Danger: Long Term Planning Ahead

By Jennifer Polk | December 09, 2013 | 4 Comments

“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”  ~ General Eric Shinseki, former U.S. Army Chief of Staff

Stand up if you’ve ever been asked to develop a three or five-year marketing plan? Keep standing if you’ve ever seen the tail-end of one of those plans come to fruition? Technology has accelerated the rate of change in every aspect of our personal and professional lives. So why are marketers still trying to etch out long-term plans that are almost certainly subject to change the moment they’re written? Companies invest tremendous time and resources in long-term planning—researching the market, seeking input from customers and consultants, and spending days locked away in conference rooms—only to emerge with a plan that is outdated as soon as the ink dries. This is especially true for marketers hoping to leverage digital technology, which is in a constant mode of iteration toward the next big idea.

Yes, organizations need to chart a course comprised of goals that describe what they want to achieve and plans that explain how they intend to achieve it. But with the increasing likelihood of detours, there is diminishing return on investment in the time and energy that goes into long-term planning. All too often, long term plans are used to provide a false sense of security to shareholders and stakeholders. In reality companies lack visibility into the changes that will take place over the next year, altering their course. They certainly can’t foresee how economic, competitive and technological forces will combine to transform their industry over the next five years. The most they can do is make predictions, educated guesses about how the trends of today will impact the organizations tomorrow.

For marketers, long-term planning around such assumptions can be short-sighted. Digital technology is constantly changing—becoming faster, better and cheaper—and making it nearly impossible to place a long-term wager on a specific approach, platform or provider. Think about brands that built long-term marketing plans around banner ads as the best way to generate awareness or MySpace as the ideal platform for online communities. Companies are trying to simultaneously catch up, keep pace and build for an uncertain future based on customer behavior and preferences that continually evolve. What was once considered impossible, is now expected. Can you say same-day delivery? So, in this environment, how should companies prepare to do business beyond the boundaries of a one-year plan?

Two words—fail forward. Cast a vision for the future of your company. But avoid the temptation to create detailed long-term plans or multi-year roadmaps. These administrative exercises can divert time and attention away from running the business. More importantly, teams that create such plans often become so focused on staying the course and completing the next milestone that they lose site external perspective and relevance. Instead, develop and execute short-term plans that allow your team to be effective and remain agile. Remember that an ounce of doing is worth more than a pound of planning. So focus on quick wins by finding ways to make incremental improvements and build the foundation for future innovation. These daily victories will help you build momentum and gain support for bigger ideas.

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4 Comments

  • Robert says:

    Great point – 3 year or longer, marketing plans are completely pointless.

    If we were still following SEO practices from 5 years ago now, we’d only be shooting ourselves in the foot more and more every day.

    Google+ didn’t even exist then.

    • Thanks for your comment. Yes, detailed plans more than 3 yrs out have little usefulness. Even plans more than 1 yr out are risky given the rate of change in digital marketing.

  • Ken Archer says:

    I agree that long cycles of long-term planning are not good. However, there is still a need to put a target with some type of high-level milestones. This is especially important for large organizations. However, execution is done in an Agile approach focused on three-month sprints where external and internal influences are taken in to account, the execution plan updated for the next sprint and the roadmap altered based upon those tweaks.

    • Thanks for your comment Ken. I agree that companies need a long-term target or goal that defines what they want to achieve. This ensures everyone is working toward a common objective and provides much-needed direction in a large organization. The plan that gets them there, particularly the length and level of detail, varies for every organization. Nevertheless, short and long-term plans can benefit from “three-month sprints” as milestones to evaluate internal and external influences and as points to assess performance and validate that the roadmap still makes sense.