Coping With Uncertainty In Planning

Coping with uncertainty in planning has never been as relevant and necessary for marketers as it is now. Between the coronavirus pandemic, political chaos in the US, and the UK’s final departure from the European Union, events are creating a perfect storm of upheaval and turmoil that's affecting markets and consumers all over the world like never before. So, with all this uncertainty, how can you plan your marketing activities with any degree of confidence?

The common notion is that planning is built upon a foundation of reliable predictions. That in order to make successful plans, you need to have a certain degree of clarity over what's likely to happen. Yet, reality is that this is never the case, even when environments are decidedly calmer than they are at present. Things change, and our plans have to constantly adapt, especially in today's transient world.

But how do you create a plan when you've no idea what's coming?

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Mike Tyson

The following principles and practices will allow you to put in place strategies and actions to move forward and succeed in the face of the unpredictable and unclear events that we're currently facing:

Set clear high-level goals

Your path may need to change, but that doesn't mean your destination does. When things are uncertain, it's even more important to have clarity on what it is that you're looking to achieve. Having firm high-level goals enables you to see your overall direction, and then to be able to course correct within that as needed. Be certain on your end point so you can accommodate any short-term deviations. This means having a much tighter grip on your core aims and ambitions, and a much looser one on how they are delivered.

Take the time to review your goals to ensure that they're clear, specific, and relevant. The 'Objectives and Key Results' or 'OKRs' method has been adopted by many of the world's most progressive and successful organisations as a proven way to create meaningful goals that lead to considered, empowered, and consistent plans and actions.

This guide takes you through the concept of OKRs and how to effectively craft and then apply them.

Assess the situation

Your goals give you your end destination, but you also need to know where you're starting from so you can plot the course in-between. When conditions and events are uncertain, it pays to take a step back and thoroughly assess the landscape before you move forward and take action.

The SCOPE model enables you to take a 360 degree view of your situation. It starts by looking in your rear-view mirror to understand what's happened in the past that could affect your plans. It then considers your current context in the form of your pertaining competencies, obstacles and prospects so you can evaluate your immediate environment, before asking you to outline the future developments that you anticipate or expect which could further impact you. In this respect, SCOPE offers a more rounded and progressive view of your situation that the traditional SWOT analysis.

Understand what's working and what's not

A key component of assessing your situation is to understand what's working still and what's not. Just because your marketing strategies and tactics were working three months ago doesn't mean that they are right now. As markets change, it's crucial to thoroughly analyse your customer data and sales channels/funnels to ensure that they're still functioning as they should. Are your activity levers still working? Is your messaging still resonating? Are your assets and landing pages converting? Are customers returning? And so forth.

Also, be sure to look at what competitors in your space are up to: Have they changed tactics? Are they still active in the same channels? Have they altered their messaging? Observe how they're behaving and, where you see that it's successful, evaluate whether it's something you should try to test or adopt.

Plan for scenarios

When there is uncertainty over how things will develop, having more than one plan gives you the flexibility to respond to different eventualities. By developing multiple market scenarios and then creating variants of your plan to account for each of these, you have the potential to react and pivot fast depending on how things change. Consider what specific challenges you could face and then define actions to address them. As a minimum, consider the best, worst, and moderate scenarios your business might experience and develop plans accordingly.

As your build out these scenarios, think about the signals you can use to recognise whether the scenario is becoming a reality and therefore one you should enact. Create a roadmap of the strategic bets and pivots you can take, and what will trigger each of these in turn.

Coping With Uncertainty In Planning

Watch and listen for changes

Uncertainty, by its very definition, means that making predictions of the future is very difficult. At this point in time some would say impossible! But your grounding for achieving this must always be understanding your customers. Key to coping with uncertainty in planning is to stick really close to the customer by actively watching and listening to them at all times.

Observe closely what they're doing and how they're responding to different situations. Try to understand how they're feeling and why they're making the choices that they are. Identify what challenges they're facing at this time and how likely these are to change going forward.

Constantly be conscious of what's different - is it merely a short-term fluctuation or the signal of a longer-term move - potentially aligned to one of your planned scenarios that you can then put into motion.

We can watch and listen to our customers in many different ways: through their direct feedback and comments; sales team conversations; the online content that they're viewing and consuming; social media interactions; customer service/support call recordings; and so on. Look to build a 'nervous system' of data and insights that enables you to constantly detect what your customers are thinking, doing, and sharing.

Be agile

Developing an insights 'nervous system' will give you the ability to act swiftly and precisely in adapting your plans to customer changes. This capacity to detect and react is the basis for developing an Agile approach to planning and implementation.

Agile practices have become mainstream across many different business sectors and organizational functions. They enable teams to develop plans in a very simplified and lean fashion, execute rapidly, gather feedback and insights through experimentation, and iterate to improve performance on an ongoing basis. In times of uncertainty, Agile methods are ideal to accommodate volatile market dynamics and constant fluctuations in customer needs and behaviours.

'Agile' is an umbrella term that encompasses an overall cultural mindset and approach; a collection of operational methodologies; and then a range of tools and tactics that facilitate these ways-of-working. To get a fuller understanding of what Agile means for Marketing, what it entails and how to go about adopting it, check out my series of articles starting here.

Manage expectations

As you start to implement your plans using Agile methods in this chaotic environment, it's important to continually set realistic expectations amongst your team, stakeholders, and partners. Be upfront and clear on aspects such as service levels, key dates you're aiming to hit, product availability, and so on. Managing your different constituents will build their confidence in what you're doing and thereby afford you time and patience to progress.

Similarly, evaluate your current customer policies and consider any changes given the prevailing circumstances. For example, you may consider allowing cancellations or extending payment terms for customers who are likely finding things increasingly difficult. Taking proactive measures in these areas will foster customer support and longer-term commitment to your business and brand.

Optimise selectively

More often when companies are facing uncertainty, the first thing they do is to start making cuts, especially in Marketing spend and resources. Yet investing in times of recession or hardship more often proves to be the prudent, and ultimately successful, policy in the longer-term. If you are forced to make cuts, it's important to do so selectively and avoid making sweeping reductions across the board. Look instead for ways of driving efficiency; for example do you have overlapping martech systems or agency partners, or can you postpone obligations that are likely to deliver lower value given the changing conditions? Optimize your resources selectively to be able to maximise opportunities as they present themselves, and so you're in position to take advantage for when things return.

Coping with uncertainty in planning

Planning may feel to some as a complete waste of time when faced with such unpredictability and fundamental change as we're witnessing at the moment. However, it's exactly in times like these when planning makes the biggest difference. That's not to say that we should continue to adopt the bad planning practices of the past. This world of increasing uncertainty requires new thinking and approaches if we're to come through and succeed. This isn't survival of the fittest - it's survival of the fleetest! Plan with flexibility and be agile in how you deliver those plans so you can adapt and move inline with your markets and customers. Change is the one constant in business, so uncertainty must become our advantage rather than our inhibitor.