I didn’t have planning or strategy in my job title until I was forty, when I was parachuted, feet first, into a Planning Director role. Before then I’d spent twelve years in various account management roles and six years as an agency MD. I held down Planning Director or Strategy Director jobs for the next fourteen years. Either I did a reasonably good job or I was never found out.
But I think I was fifty before the whole idea of being a Planning Director stopped feeling mildly fraudulent, and I could wear the title comfortably.
After ten years, I felt I had enough knowledge and experience to confidently advise clients, and to be a worthy coach and critic to my team.
I also realised that I’d developed a style. Comedians each have their own special brand of humour, and I had my own special brand of planning. Not better than anyone else’s, but mine.
What do I mean by style?
There were some recurring concepts and principles that had come to define both my own work, and the feedback that I was giving on the work of others.
They sound obvious when they’re written down. Some of them really are obvious because they’re universal planning truths. Some of them are my versions of things that other people have said before.
I wrote them all down anyway, in this, my very own planning handbook. The original version was written as a carousel for LinkedIn, and it looked more like an actual book.
So much of having a style is in the manner of delivery. Please don’t be disappointed.
My very own planning handbook
Planning is a radical discipline
Radical doesn’t mean extreme. It means getting to the root of things and solving problems from first principles, based on deep understanding. It’s about critical thought and pulling things apart to understand how they work. Good planning is a hands-dirty, under-the-bonnet* occupation.
Planning’s output is input
Planning is a means to other people’s ends. Our work has to be useful and usable. Planning provides strategic direction and creative inspiration by being clear, credible and relevant. We are not poets or intellectuals. We are service providers.
There’s no substitute for primary research
You can do planning without primary research, but you really shouldn’t. Primary research makes your work more authoritative and it gives you more authority. And it’s a privilege to be paid to talk to people and learn from their experiences and perspectives. We all need to get out more.
Strategy should be worthy of the name
If you call something a strategy it should behave like one. Strategy is a framework for making decisions. If your strategy doesn’t make it clear what should, and shouldn’t, be done, and why, it’s not actually a strategy at all. A strategy won’t make important decisions easy, but it should make them simple.
Insights should be worthy of the name
We always have information, but we rarely have insights. Depending on the work you’re doing, you don’t necessarily need an insight to do it well. Many brilliant campaigns have been based on nothing more than good old-fashioned facts.
Insights radically change the context for what you’re doing. Insights are the ‘why-hasn’t-anyone-thought-of-this-before?’ kind of obvious after you’ve had one. But they’re not remotely obvious beforehand.
Insight = truth + novelty + relevance = usable revelation
Resist the pressure to be continuously insightful. And enjoy it all the more when you are.
Naïve questions are often smart questions
An intelligently-motivated naïve question is a radical act. Naïve questions are essential to first-principles problem solving. First principles means not taking things for granted. I’ve lost count of the times that questioning the ‘obvious’ has led to profoundly useful conversations. The risk of appearing stupid is actually very low. The reward from deep understanding is always very high.
No wishful thinking
Wishful thinking is insidiously embedded in the language of our trade, particularly in our strategy metaphors. Journeys, relationships, communities and conversations are lovely ideas. But they are also comforting fictions that can lull you into flawed strategy.
Listening is a form of imagination
Planning is nothing without empathy.
We’re often referred to as “the voice of the consumer”. And that’s a big responsibility, which is only sincerely undertaken by using every means possible to imagine ourselves into their shoes. The same goes for our clients. Understanding and framing their challenges is also an act of listening and imagination.
Good listening is the most important skill of a planner.
The most important target audience
Planning is the transmission system that directs the power of strategy to the wheels of creativity. Our most important target audience is the creative people who have to work from the stimulus that we provide.
Understanding what creative people require of us, and understanding how to work well with them, are essential planning skills.
Planning is nothing without empathy.
Stop to think
In an open plan office there is unspoken pressure to always look like you’re doing something. But if the something you’re doing is thinking, it looks like you’re doing nothing. Nonetheless that is the job. Back in the day, planning was separated from account management precisely so that people would have time to think rather than do.
Stopping to think is planning’s birthright.
Feed and trust your subconscious
It’s a cliché that being interested makes you interesting. It’s also a profound truth. There is an invisible hopper on top of your head, into which you should feed as much random diversity as possible. You never know when or how your subconscious will recycle and recombine the jumble into something useful. But know that it will.
Clarity and precision
In my experience quality control in planning is usually about making work more clear, more precise, or both. Is that really a strategy, or is it a tactic? Are your metrics a good match for your objectives? When you say ‘shareable’, don’t you really mean ‘share-worthy’? Better to be seen as a pedant than be seen as unprofessional.
Know what you’re talking about
Once I casually dropped the word ‘salience’ into a client presentation. The marketing director called me out and asked for my definition. I flunked it, and the shame I felt then has kept me out of trouble ever since. Never use a word, never refer to a concept, that you don’t fully understand. Don’t be casual with technical language.
Plan your story
Plan your story as carefully as you plan your strategy. What will the ideal case study look like? How could a success story best be brought to life? How could it be illustrated? How do you ensure that you have what you need when you come to write it up? Have you adequately captured the ‘before’ state? Will the beginning of your story be as well told as the end? Act as if your job is to document the ‘making of’ each project or campaign.
Your professional opinion
You’re paid to have one. It’s what makes you interesting.
So this is my planning handbook, my style guide. It has worked for me. Hopefully it prompts some useful reflection for you.
- Planning is a radical discipline
- Planning’s output is input
- There’s no substitute for primary research
- Strategy should be worthy of the name
- Insights should be worthy of the name
- Naïve questions are often smart questions
- No wishful thinking
- Listening is a form of imagination
- The most important target audience
- Stop to think
- Feed and trust your subconscious
- Clarity and precision
- Know what you’re talking about
- Plan your story
- Your professional opinion
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