In the spirit of Lean Planning this essay will be short, sharp and efficient; written to employ the principles it seeks to convey. Hopefully the self-referential, allegorical approach that it embodies will exemplify the axioms it aims to communicate, and not be perceived by its audience or ‘sample’ group as rudeness. This essay in itself represents a ‘Minimum Viable Strategy’, but more on that later.
The concept put forward in this paper is for the future of planning, ‘Planning 3.0’, or planning in 2020; if not these, then perhaps just a better way of developing strategy.
It is quite simple. It is what we (by use of plural pronoun) call ‘Lean Planning’.
Lean Planning is the combination of two very basic ideas: ‘Accelerated Iteration’ and ‘Extreme Strategy’. These concepts are unashamedly lifted and taken from the lean start-up movement. A lot of the content discussed in this paper can be found in the growing amount of literature in the start-up field, and the author would strongly recommend the books mentioned in this essay; most of the Lean Planning method is a reapplication of the principles outlined in these books. The original thinking for this composition comes in its link to the role of planning, and its fundamental place in our future. No more, no less.
This essay will discuss the two basic concepts that comprise Lean Planning, and then summarise the collective benefits of the method when applied to the real world. The benefits are huge for those that commit: happier clientry, better work, healthier profit & loss accounts and a more homogenous process, both internally and externally.
So let’s begin.
WHAT IS LEAN PLANNING?
Lean Planning is a style of planning that is grounded in agility, reactivity and constant communication. It rejects the role of the Planner locked away for days on end. Instead preferring the planning function as a constantly moving, constantly innovating, always learning entity – using every tool at its disposal.
Lean Planning means changing one’s perception of imperfection. It means identifying failure as a positive. It means changing the way you think about the way you work.
It is comprised of two fundamental concepts: Accelerated Iteration and Extreme Strategy. These two concepts are inextricably linked. They cannot be executed without each other, and together will change the way your Planning department works.
Accelerated iteration is an accelerated version of what Planning should do already: receive a brief, develop the strategy, present the strategy, iterate, finalise, and deploy. There are of course millions of differences to this process but when reduced down to a few stages this is it – or some adaptation of ‘it’.
So why does it often get so confused? Why do we often waste so much time? If the process works, why do we find ourselves presenting work that has been a long time in development, but is still fundamentally wrong?
There are many answers to these questions beyond just ‘interrogating the brief’.
Yes we can list the problems; unhelpful client briefs, unfocused planning, low quality research, broad parameters, and incorrect objectives – the list is long. But if one employs and puts into practice Accelerated Iteration then this can be solved, or at least minimised. Accelerated Iteration is designed to cut down the amount of time wasted in developing strategy or work that isn’t wanted or has become unnecessary. Which pretty much covers all of the above.
It works like this.
In this fast paced, constantly changing world a clients’ problems change pretty quickly too. This means that a brief no longer stays set in stone, and nor should it. The best way to service our clients is not to lock them in to a brief that they can’t change, but help them be more fluid, realise their changing requirements and adapt as much as possible to their wants and needs. Our job is to solve their problems, and if these change then so must the solutions.
There is no point in solving an out of date problem.
The concept is simple. Accelerated iteration aims to get through the strategy cycle as quickly as possible. Its purpose is to continuously feedback to the client with complete transparency. By doing this any possible problems are encountered quicker, and therefore can be with dealt sooner, prior to moving forward. This means constantly communicating with clients, constantly receiving feedback, and constantly developing and iterating the strategy accordingly.
Here are the 6 key stages again:
- Receive a brief
- Develop the strategy
- Present the strategy
Now, if we were to identify the main problem areas where most strategic projects get stuck ‘on repeat’ it would most likely be the first four stages. If you have a larger problem with deployment then this is probably a separate issue (we would argue). For most planners stages one to four can be the most frustrating time in the process: constantly going back to the drawing board and either starting again, or heavily revising what seemed to be a perfectly fine approach is demoralising. This iterative cycle is depicted in a more simplified form in Figure 1 below.
Fig. 1 The iterative cycle of strategic planning
So what happens by moving through the iterative cycle quicker?
Quicker iterations, quicker learning, and quicker thinking.
By iterating faster the client brief is interrogated, first thoughts validated (or taken off the table without too much time or emotions being attached), and the problem undergoes continuous recognition and redefinition (as is the strategy). By seeking to move through this loop at an accelerated pace without fear of how many times it takes, the client is always aware of what direction the planner is heading, what avenues they are exploring, and crucially what to expect from their agency next.
What does this mean?
The iterative strategic planning cycle becomes smoother. The client always feels in the loop (and that they are not paying us to go off brief), and the Planner feels like their time isn’t being wasted; they have more regular check-ins with the client (or decision-maker) and know that they are heading in the right direction.
Accelerated Iteration also means greater agility and ability to react to change. If the brief changes then it does not become the drama and ‘blame game’ that is often seen permeating the walls of the creative agency. Rather, it is a short discussion that quickly turns to problem solution. Accelerated Iteration understands that whilst interrogating the brief is a worthwhile activity (and a fundamental part of the strategic cycle), many problems arise once the brief is worked on, and it is getting to these problems that supplied the logical rationale for the concept.
By using the Accelerated Iteration technique we find the real problem sooner, we have the ability to flex, we keep the client happy, and minimal time is wasted.
For it to work however, one must embrace ‘Extreme Strategy’ and the ‘Minimum Viable Strategy’.
If Accelerated Iteration means continuously feeding back to (and receiving feedback from) the client, how is one to develop strategy? Again this is more attitudinal than anything else, and again comes back to simplicity.
The problem with many strategists is their penchant for providing the answer. It is an ego boost to work on a strategy and present it back to rapturous cries of ‘genius’ and ‘well done that planner’; but this mostly exists in our head. The reality is that most of the time ideas become so convoluted in their inception and evolution that merit is not yielded to one person (except for awards when often too much is attributed to an individual or small number of contributors). Nevertheless, once a strategy is presented feedback is always forth coming, clients aren’t known for saying nothing, and we should be suspicious when this situation occurs.
Extreme Strategy asks that we accept the ongoing nature of the strategic cycle. It asks us to admit to ourselves that actually had we gone back to the client with the first strategic framework we had thought of, our journey to the ‘solution’ might have been quicker or easier.
Often our love for the perfect (and to be seen as perfect) blinds us to the benefits of failure. Tim Harford writes quite beautifully on this subject in his book ‘Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure’. But failure means creating the possibility to learn: by learning we can revise to be better. Embracing imperfection lets us navigate our way to the route of the problem and find a solution faster, and with more ease.
Extreme Strategy is about giving the client the bare minimum they need to understand the direction and provide constructive feedback, enabling the faster learning and iterative process required for Accelerated Iteration.
Extreme Strategy is used to create what is known as a ‘Minimum Viable Strategy’ (MVS). The MVS enables us to do Accelerated Iteration. The MVS is the minimum output one can produce to give the client an idea of exactly how the strategy will work.
The idea for the MVS is directly lifted from what in entrepreneurial circles is known as an MVP or ‘Minimum Viable Product’; a technology product (or feature) built purely to test a particular business hypothesis. And it is probably easier to explain this conceptually before moving on.
The MVP is built solely as a test; its purpose is to define whether making a product is viable prior to committing valuable resources. With an MVP the aesthetic and functionality (to a certain degree) is irrelevant; if the product is successful in testing it is not ready for launch, but the company has proof of its demand. Likewise if the product (or feature) fails, then realising its shortcomings earlier saves more time and resources.
The following is several short excerpts from Eric Ries’ book ‘The Lean Startup’ (2011). Here Ries discusses MVP’s for startups and entrepreneurs:
“A Minimum Viable Product (MVP) helps entrepreneurs start the process of learning as quickly as possible…Contrary to traditional product development, which usually involves a long, thoughtful incubation period, the goal of the MVP is to begin the process of learning, not end it…It’s goal is to test fundamental business hypotheses…Deciding how complex an MVP needs to be cannot be done formulaically. It requires judgment…The lesson of the MVP is that any additional work beyond what was required to start learning is a waste…”
Extreme Strategy is the art of producing Planning’s version of the MVP – the MVS. It enables us to return to the client with the bare minimum strategy and test the validity of our assumptions, hypotheses and approach. This must be continuously followed and adhered to through the entire strategic process, in line with the Accelerated Iteration method.
To practice Extreme Strategy one must build MVS’s. This means not being precious, and refuting the inner desire for pitch theatre glory, or merit attribution.
Remember that Planning is not about creating strategy for strategy’s sake, it is not about being the smartest in the room, and it most definitely is not about the perceived glory of pitch or presentation theatre. It is about problem solution and adding value to a clients’ business.
Extreme Strategy (used to create an MVS) with Accelerated Iteration is the most efficient way to get to a solution.
THE BENEFITS OF LEAN PLANNING
In the spirit of Lean Planning we have broken several of the benefits down into bullet points for more palatable consumption. Of course these positive facets of the method are intertwined and hard to separate. If one finds that they cognitively start to blend into a larger picture, it is likely that this picture is one of logical conclusion; most of Lean Planning is defined by common sense.
- Work/strategy sold: Early, continuous client communication and feedback through the iterative cycle means the client is brought in early, and ‘buys-in’ to the direction. This will produce a 100% (or close to) work sale rate for your Planning department when it comes to final presentation delivery*.
*This should filter down to more creative work sold in first time too as the client has everyone is aligned to the role the work plays in the wider strategy.
- Relationships: It is likely that using the Lean Planning method will mean greater communication and greater collaboration between you and your client(s). This should make the process smoother (note the term ‘should’, we make no guarantees – that’s up to you). The client should not only be happier with the work you produce, but also enjoy working alongside their agency’s planning department more as a result. Internal relationships should also benefit from less stress, previously caused by demoralising processes and lack of confirmed direction.
- Stress (and absences): Using Lean Planning helps to avoid the exhausting pressure of delivering a strategy (and subsequent creative work) after several months or work, not knowing if the client will buy it or if failure waits in the wings.
- Agility & efficiency: By employing Lean Planning, the client, Planner and wider team are quickly able to react to a change in brief with minimal fuss or wastage. It means getting to a solution in the shortest amount of time possible – this is efficient.
- Time: Greater efficiency denotes less time wasted on paths that lead to no fruition, for both client and agency.
- Costs: Less time and less resources equals less costs for the agency and the client.
- Efficacy: By enabling the brief to organically develop and tweaking the strategy accordingly the final work produced by the agency should be more effective. Again, this will depend on the agency and it’s ability to solve its client’s problems.
THINK SMALL (CHANGE)
Lean Planning will not work for every agency, every Planning department or every planner. It may not suit some clients or their infrastructure. What we can be certain of is the amount of wastage in agencies’ current processes; much of this stems from the client to agency relationship and the way problems are defined and solved at a strategic level. This causes myriad problems for all stakeholders, and reduces the productivity and effectiveness of the strategic process.
The future of planning, ‘Planning 3.0’ or planning in 2020 will be defined by more complex systems of strategic development and production to meet the more fragmented, proliferated communications world. Agencies and their Planning departments will work to navigate this more complex environment in a variety of successful and less successful ways. Lean Planning is only one of the methods that will come out of the ether, but we believe it to be the simplest and most compelling. We posit that Lean Planning requires small change, but leads to big difference.
We recommend you try it.
For a similar thought please see ‘Swimming in the Shallow End’ by Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London