What Type of Plan Do You Really Need?

One of the challenges in economic development is selecting the right level of planning for available resources. How can you determine whether your EDO needs a strategic plan, a brand plan, a marketing plan or a sales plan? I have been getting a lot of requests for guidance on strategy design and deployment from county and community level EDOs. Often, the request is for help in creating a strategic plan when in fact a sales plan would make a lot more sense for the leadership to focus on.

To better understand the real need of the Organization, I ask two simple clarifying questions:

  1. What do you intend to do with the plan?
  2. What type of plan do you think is required?

Initially I was surprised that these questions turned out to be difficult for EDO leaders to answer. But, then again my career has been largely spent in Procter & Gamble where the process for strategic planning and deployment is well defined and significant resources are dedicated to the process.

To help bring a little more clarity to the exercise, I set about the task to create working definitions for each plan type. I started by doing research on the Internet and uncovered a plethora of confusing discussions on how to think about each plan. After a few hours it became obvious the approach was not going to be fruitful. My next steps were to post a request for definitions in several LinkedIn Groups related to branding and to reach out to my network of retired P&G marketers. Fortunately, this approach was far more helpful and I have been able to synthesize the input into a set of working definitions that I will be using and that I hope are helpful to you.

Note that Strategic Plans and Branding Plans tend to have a minimum 5-year planning horizon. Marketing and Sales Plans are more near-term and usually focus on the next 12 – 18 months.

So far, it has been my experience that when most community EDO leaders are asking for help in creating a Strategic Plan, but they really need a highly focused and aligned Sales Plan. This becomes more obvious when the planning exercise starts and the natural focus of everybody in the room is to create a list of companies to pursue for capital attraction.

If there is no energy, or authority, to address place competitiveness through public policy reform, asset creation or infrastructure upgrade (three components of place development), then the EDO should not spin its wheels trying to create a long-term Strategic Plan. Similarly, if there is no budget to run robust market research to understand the current image of a place and to understand the barriers in achieving the desired identity, then a Branding Plan will not meet the immediate need. These are both plans that require appropriate resources and leadership commitment to create in a way that can provide appropriate guidance to local decision makers, and they are plans that typically take months to create.

Most local planning needs are best met either with a well-crafted and strategically sound Sales Plan, or a Marketing Plan plus a Sales Plan. This level of planning is the fastest route to action and results. It is often what your financial backers are looking for. Done well, it delivers Pareto’s 80:20 solution and will effectively increase your probability of success. Working on creating a Branding Plan or a Strategic Plan may be overkill for the situation.

I appreciate my counsel flies in the face of conventional wisdom offered by many consultants and Advertising Agencies. But, I subscribe to the belief that planning for the sake of planning is a waste of everybody’s time, resources and money. If your EDO is not in a position to do the planning well and to actually take action based on it, then don’t invest in creating the plans. In fact, creating a long-term Strategic Plan or a Brand Plan that cannot be executed may actually do harm by damaging the credibility of the EDO.

A.G. Lafley has been credited with saying “The only strategy that matters is the one that touches the consumer.” This is great, practical advice. When you have limited resources, authority and time, err on creating the most robust plans you can that will touch the capital investor and key consultants to the capital investment decision. Keep it simple, cost effective and not over engineered. You can realize strong economic growth through an appropriately resourced and well-executed Sales Plan. Longer-term the other plans can definitely be highly beneficial, but only when you are genuinely ready to take action based on their guidance and to resource the work properly.

I also appreciate many people mistakenly believe Sales Plans are tactical and not strategic. To avoid this criticism, I would suggest the use of a nine step planning process entitled “Moving From Vision To Action” to create your Sales Plan (and/or Marketing Plan). This process will help ensure a strong, forward-looking strategic foundation to these plans. The vision discussed in the process can be a 3 – 5 year vision that will be easier for you to gain alignment on. The major difference between this approach and creating a long-term Strategic Plan and Brand Plan is one of degree.

Please share your thoughts on the definitions and on the above counsel. It was controversial advice when I first gave it in the 2008 IEDC Annual meeting in Atlanta. I don’t expect it to go unchallenged in 2010. I’d also appreciate it if you would share your personal stories of planning successes and failures so the community can benefit from your learning. Thanks in advance for taking the time to leave a comment.

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6 Comments so far

  1. Dean Barber

    January 19, 2010

    I enjoyed reading your blog differentiating a strategic plan from a sales plan. They are different animals and I think you showed that. And I would agree with you that planning for the sake of planning is a waste of time. It’s busy work rather than getting down to work.

  2. Ian West

    January 19, 2010

    Excellent article – I particularly like the question ‘What do you intend to do with the plan?’ I have come across too many who seem to believe there is some magic in the act of planning: write a plan and all will be well. Rather like buying a gym membership, never actually going there and wondering why the pounds don’t drop off.

  3. Vartika Verma

    January 20, 2010

    After reading your post on linkedin, I was thinking about the difference between the different plans… You have penned it down very well here! They are definitely very helpful.

  4. Steve Corwin

    January 20, 2010

    Hi Ed,

    This is a well constructed thoughtful guideline and approach to the development of a plan. One point I would make is that we don’t always have in our sights all of the critical environmental or internal factors that can impact our brands on a moments notice, especially when we work with 3 to 5 year horizons and in what are seemingly turbulent times for many industries. To this point I would argue for the value of the “planning process” not just the end product or deliverable “the plan”. Every plan, whether called a Business, Marketing or Sales Plan, should conclude with a section titled Action Plan, which ensures the preceding sections don’t get lost on the shelf and is successfully carried forward from the day it is presented.

    Steve Corwin

    Steve Corwin & Partners LLC

  5. Brian French

    March 28, 2010

    I really like this piece.

    For whatever reason a lot of jurisdictions are chasing each other to be the same thing . . . a creative class county / city / town / hamlet. And they’re reorganizing their job creation statistics to prove they are being successful at it.

    I think a lot of places are hesitant to bank too much of their planning on “sales” activities because this is so easily measured results wise.
    And there will be a very small “hit” rate in attracting FDI (although one “hit” potentially has a massive effect).

    So a lot of jurisdictions look to focus on small business development because “80% of employment, etc. etc.” (which is true at one level and untrue at another).

    It takes a long time – likely a decade – to prepare a municipal “product” that is ready to compete. It takes a lot of funding, smart work, commitment and leadership patience (which is in short supply) to put a winning program together.

  6. […] among executives in a targeted industry. You might be interested in reading an earlier blog post on selecting the right level of planning for your […]

6 Responses to “What Type of Plan Do You Really Need?”




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