Strategic planning stripped bare

Before your company or organisation heads into its next round of strategic planning, can I suggest you take a look at one of the best business books I’ve ever read?  It was written by Hans Christian Andersen nearly 200 years ago and tells the story of the emperor who hires two swindlers to make him a new suit of clothes.

It all ends in tears because it turns out the con-men have convinced the Emperor he looks stunning when in fact he is stark naked.  Of course, none of his ministers have the courage to let the King know the truth…until some kid in the crowd yells the obvious: The emperor is wearing no clothes!

For me this story is a perfect parable of what I see occurring in so many companies and organisations when it comes to so-called strategic planning.

You know the gig: The senior management team head off site for a day or two with the butcher’s paper and sticky notes to set out the company's plan for the next 12 to 48 months.  The one element that seems to almost always be missing is the view of the outside world, or to be more precise: the customer.

I’ve come to the conclusion that all strategic planning sessions should begin with an externally focused brand planning session.  Provided it is robust, brand planning forces companies to ask the most critical question of all: What value does my company bring to the world? And the people most able to answer that question are consumers.  Understanding their perspective of your company and the value it brings to their lives is utterly critical in ensuring that your strategy doesn’t end up looking rather…well, naked.

Without that perspective, there is a significant risk that the CEO will end up a bit like the Emperor - Parading a new strategy on the catwalk which is completely bereft of the real fabric that every business needs to succeed: brand meaning.

I suppose the other alternative is to invite a few kids to review your strategy.  Sometimes the simplest minds have the sharpest insights.

The danger of distance

Wars are fought at a distance; battles between families are often fought at a distance.  In fact, in my experience distance is always a factor when relationships breakdown between individuals and organisations.

Of course, there is a time for respecting someone’s space and nothing can be gained by aggressive confrontation.  However, while our nature is to separate ourselves, for companies and corporate entities that often just makes things worse.

Distance isn’t just about physical separation.  It can be the perception of mental distance, a sense that you simply are not prepared to come into my mental space and see or feel things from my perspective.

The mining company executive who sits down in the dirt with a group of tribal elders is far more likely to succeed than one who stays in his city office tower and sends out letters via his legal team.

Bridging distance, reaching out, shows respect.  You may never agree, you may never be able to reconcile your views of an issue or the world in general.  But reaching out shows respect and is likely to significantly lower the risk of your separation turning into a damaging conflict

How often have you based your opinions on someone from hearsay?  You build up this image of a cold, disinterested, hard-hearted individual.  Then you meet. The warmth of the handshake, the look in the eye, the nervous first meeting, realising you both have hopes and fears.  There aren’t always fairy-tale endings, but stepping towards rather than away means far less chance of a nightmare conclusion.

Don’t get trapped in the media bubble

When it comes to investing most of us believe the sage advice of good financial planners: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

And yet, when it comes to communications, I am still seeing many organisations doing exactly that. In particular, I am amazed by the fixation with media relations as the “be all and end of all” of their communication strategy.

Let me be clear: I am NOT saying media relations is unimportant – it is very important.  And, I am NOT, saying journalists and news outlets are no longer hugely influential – or that media relations is a waste of time. 

What I am saying is that the influence of journalists in shaping public opinion can be over-stated and the role and dominance of traditional media is being eroded. 

This means companies have to think very carefully about planning their communications – in particular thinking about building relationships, as opposed to running into the street and blurting information into the crowd.

I am also not advocating throwing all your eggs into the online media basket.  The digital world is crowded with a lot of dodgy claims and fleeting trends – this week’s new app (that you absolutely have to be part of) will quickly be overtaken by something else (probably being developed in some 14 year old’s bedroom right now!).

By all means look at Facebook and Twitter – but as part of a broader suite of communication channels that are relevant to the audience with whom you want to connect.

For me, the focus should be on thinking about how people want to be treated and acting with respect and integrity.   As a customer, stakeholder or voter, I want you to tell me the truth.  I want you to provide information that is balanced and helps me understand.  I want you to give me options.  I don’t want you to shout at me, or call me up when I am in the middle of dinner.  When you are wrong, admit it, tell me what you are doing to fix the problem and move on. 

There is a risk of communications people living in a media bubble – where they get fixated on a world inhabited by journalists, politicians and the veritable industry of stakeholder groups and wannabe advocates.  

Most of the people you need to influence are just getting on with their lives.  Forget the headlines, they’re far more worried about what they forgot to put in their kid’s lunchbox today than about criticism of your company or the latest scandal.   Way back in my news producing days, I remember getting home from work one night after a particularly big day on the newsfront.  I think the Berlin Wall had come down overnight.  I got home to my wife and one year old son.  Forget about the Berlin wall, my wife’s focus that night was (rightly) on two things– bed and bath for the child.  Perspective is a marvellous thing. At times communications professionals need a heavy dose.