Do we still need to plan stuff?

Andy Nairn looks to record producer Quincy Jones to ask if planning is still worth it

This month, MediaCat Magazine has been asking whether we still need a plan, given the unpredictable times in which we live. As somebody who’s been a “planner” for a few decades (I’ve even received junk mail from people who thought I was a town planning official), you can probably guess what I’m going to say here. It’s a big fat yes from me, although with an important caveat which I’ll explain later.

Let’s start with the case for planning

In my view, there are four key reasons why people in business still need it (whether it’s in their job title or not).

First, we’re all guilty of over-exaggerating the pace of change. Every generation does this. But as that wise old bird Bill Bernbach once said: “It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. But a communicator must be concerned with unchanging man.” Put simply, it’s a cop-out to throw up your hands and say that things are moving too quickly to anticipate future needs. You need to stay focused on the bigger human drivers and use them to form a long-term strategic plan (with tactical plans within that).

Second, last time I looked, businesses have lead times. Sure they may be getting shorter, but things don’t usually happen overnight. So just rocking up and hoping that you’ll be able to improvise in the moment doesn’t work. Most significant actions require weeks or months of planning. True business transformation typically takes years. Not scoping out the necessary actions and lead times for change is the equivalent of not revising for a big exam. Even with all the talent in the world, you won’t be able to cram in all the necessary work on the day. By the time you step into the room and have your brainwave, you will already have failed.

Third, business is a team sport. Even if you’re a sole trader (which I suspect most of you reading this are not), you will have partners, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders who need to know what you’re about. For larger organisations, the need is even more pressing because you will have employees to galvanise. You may be able to make it up as you go along, but this will be deeply unsettling for everyone else around you. Make a plan, then share it.

Finally, having a great plan paradoxically makes it much easier to do stuff that is unplanned. Maybe this is the real clincher for those delicate souls who feel constrained by any sense of forward thinking. It is precisely when you have your brand worked out, you know your tone of voice instinctively and you’ve sketched out your trajectory for the next couple of years that you will have the time and confidence to react to the unexpected. Whereas if you’re continually busking it, any attempts to seize the moment will feel disjointed, opportunistic and fake.

That’s the caveat, I suppose. Plans these days can’t be set in stone, they have to have some wiggle room to allow for future uncertainty. But that’s quite different from ripping them up altogether!

The legendary record producer Quincy Jones has got a great mantra to cover this

He’s very meticulous in his planning. In fact, he’s quite mathematical in his approach, a great believer in the science of music and the elements that go into a great track. But as part of this process, he ring-fences 20-30% of his time for serendipity to work its unplanned magic. Or, as the sign on his studio wall puts it: “Let the Lord walk through the room.”

I love this phrase. I think that all too often, marketing processes are designed to keep the Lord firmly locked out of the room. But I wouldn’t go to the other extreme and let any old person walk through any old place, any time they wanted.

Hmmm. Not sure I’ve thought that metaphor through properly. Told you it pays to plan stuff.

Featured image: Quincy Jones archive

Andy Nairn

Andy Nairn is one of the Founders of Lucky Generals and author of Go Luck Yourself. It’s available at Amazon and elsewhere.

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