Planning with Purpose.

Planning with Purpose.


By James Clifton, MISSION Group Chief Executive

The start of another year and no doubt the launch of a thousand planning projects in organisations. I’m always reminded of 19th century Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke’s observation that “No plan survives first contact with the enemy”.

Of course, the ‘enemy’ here is simply reality, in the shape of colleagues, customers, campaigns, clutter, confusion and competitors.  Even the most robust plans can crumble in the face of a single, well-crafted tweet.

It got me thinking about strategic planning as a corporate task and whether it’s worth the tablet its written on these days.  I’ve lost count of the hours I’ve spent, over my career, writing, contributing or reporting on Strategic Plans.  These weighty documents, copiously footnoted and lavishly appended, often with a five or even ten year time horizon, inevitably take months to compile, absorb thousands of man-hours and invariably end up filed in a bottom drawer – or an Archive folder - as soon as they’re approved.

And maybe that’s a good thing, because they surely aren’t written for actually implementing.  Filled with feelgood euphemisms -   “to achieve excellence in customer satisfaction”, “to enhance overall customer experience”, “to be a leader in diversity” – they rarely inspire real change.  Most often they simply achieve consensus around a set of “least bad” objectives: the ones nobody can object to.  And that’s clearly a giant waste of time, money and emotional capital.

Another problem is the time horizon: old-style planning usually takes a long term view. Yet those plans immediately bump up against the short term realities of analyst expectations, shareholder returns and 24/7 connected markets. Our real time horizon today is, literally, nanoseconds.

So is there any purpose in planning anymore?  Well, the clue is literally in the question.

In a large company, with thousands of employees, there’s a real need for a meaningful way of setting clear cultural signposts for people so they can make informed operational decisions. At MISSION, we call this Purpose and we plan for it, how we deliver it, what it means for us, dynamically, at every business touchpoint.  President Kennedy said, “Effort and courage are not enough without Purpose”. Smart guy.

Purpose is the brand’s reason for being, beyond just making a profit.  It can range from being ethical to making the world kinder to making daily life more fun. Finding and distilling a brand’s real Purpose is an essential planning task. Without it, you’re not a brand, you're just a provider of stuff.

We see similar thinking emerging in our Clients worldwide: a tangible shift to Purpose-oriented brand thinking (and planning) rather than just a bunch of fashionable, uh-huh ideas every three to five years. 

But Purpose is merely the foundation.  Without Action it’s just a nice idea.  What really counts – and what you can actively plan for – are Actions. If colleagues understand the brand’s Purpose then they can take Actions feeling reasonably confident that they’re going to be right (or, at worst, right-ish). That makes the combo of Purpose and Actions uniquely empowering and energising for colleagues.

Purpose helps people make consistent decisions and actions, resulting in a more joined-up experience for everyone including the customer. And it allows for consistency over time, by showing that today’s Purpose remains important tomorrow, next year and five years hence: acting as a brand touchstone even as the world around us is going crazy. Actions will change according to context but Purpose should remain consistent.

Another advantage: a clear Purpose, exhibited through consistent brand Actions, helps attract passionate customers and engender real loyalty.  From The Body Shop to Virgin to The Co-operative Bank, we’ve all seen strong brands with a real sense of purpose build loyal and passionate customer bases who share the brand’s ethos.

This approach also creates a much richer planning dialogue internally.  When everyone at every level shares a common Purpose, it’s much easier to contribute ideas for Actions, big and small, that are genuinely additive to the communal goal.  It provides a common language that everyone can speak.

So, planning isn’t out: it’s just different. As another President, Dwight D Eisenhower said, “Plans are useless, but planning is essential”.  

It’s a living, breathing, evolving raison d’etre built around Purpose. Operationalised and updated dynamically. Lighter than the weighty tomes of yore and with a more fluid time horizon, utilising technology to invite more input and achieve more buy-in from those who will ultimately deliver it via their Actions. It’s a plan, Jim, but not as we know it.

Happy New Year and may your 2020 be filled with both Purpose and Action.