In his usual chirpy manner, but with a hint of vindicated soothsayer, BBC’s Tomasz Schafernaker this morning announced a change in meteorological conditions. You won’t be needing the factor 30 in this part of the world for a while was the gist. Summer 2019 is over. It was the weatherman’s equivalent of ‘you’ve had your fun, now get back to work’. 

In search of solace, I immediately tapped on my iPhone weather app – in London, rain features on every day for the next nine, 10 if I include today. I have never seen this before. Tomasz was right, of course; it’s 23rd September, the first day of autumn. 

End or beginning? Half empty or half full? A tricky call for me after a glorious sunny weekend in Berlin but this a season for looking forwards not backwards, a time for essential business planning. At the very least there are all those 2020 visions to revisit and make happen over the next 12 months. No pressure!

There is a serious point here, though. As I work closely with clients and agencies to maximise the effectiveness of their commercial relationships, I have noticed an increased pressure on time devoted to planning, to parking the day-to-day tasks (albeit temporarily), to considering the overall direction of a project or enterprise.

It is understandable that constant re-structuring within the corporates that engage agencies, the resulting constraints on budgets and resources, the imperative to do more with and for less, and then the inevitable response from the service providers to these challenges, can easily wipe a quarterly review meeting out of the diary. No time, no travel allowance, just too busy with the now to reflect on the future.

But, in our fluid, speeded up business environment, there are graver opinions in circulation, supported by evidence that not even half of strategic plans achieve their goals. In short, strategy is dead. Tactics now occupy the driver’s seat, action has replaced analysis, customers prefer excitement to continuity. 

Citing, for example, The Lean Startup approach (from the book by Eric Ries), there is a view that businesses can find out along the way what they need to know, with in the moment experiments and fast user feedback loops. 

Fortunately, there are counter-detractors, of whom I am one. It is certainly true that the traditional process of developing and executing an annual plan has passed its sell-by date. However, the key ingredients of strategy, better described as strategic thinking, are as critical today as ever.

The fact that everything is changing around us means that, without a clear articulation of whom we serve, the problem we are solving, why and how we add unique value, we can become lost in the noise, like dogs chasing every passing car.  

According to American author and science journalist Daniel Goleman, focus is the key to any human success, especially, I would add, in a world full of distractions. And to quote the late baseball star Yogi Berra: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else”. 

So, what to do as the leaves start to turn? Here are my five planning priorities:

  • Review your personal and professional goals: start here because everything stems from how eagerly you bounce out of bed in the morning. Also, this will undoubtedly have been a subject you considered on the sun lounger. Are your work and private lives aligned and in balance? Are you fulfilled, on track, making progress? What’s missing, who or where are the blockers? Do you have unmet training and development needs?
  • Check in with the direction of your business (or whichever part of it is yours): from a macro viewpoint (the wider context and emerging trends) and at a micro level (you can still do a lot worse than a SWOT analysis). Does the long-term vision represent a destination worth reaching, are the short-term term goals still fit for purpose? Is the strategy grounded in data (rather than a four-box grid)? Can you make the case for ROI?
  • Ensure your business relationships are fully-functioning: both with colleagues and external partners. It is very easy to become comfortable with relationships that operate without lows but that also contain no highs. Is there enough trust, candour, challenge, proactivity? Don’t let the rhythm of the work dictate the rhythm of the relationship. If in doubt, an independent third party can help (top tip,
  • Interrogate your core business processes and disciplines: as a client, are your briefs and briefings enabling your agencies to deliver their best work? Are you able to give feedback and make decisions quickly enough? How many people need to be (versus want to be) involved? As an agency, do you know enough about your clients’ businesses? How often do you get it right first time? Are you geared up to share your wider, consolidated learning, to take fresh, relevant, unsolicited ideas to your clients (always a winner!)
  • Hone your business for speed and agility: pace can drive performance like never before (with the proviso that nonsense traveling at a million miles per hour is still nonsense). Here I can heartily recommend Sophie Devonshire’s excellent book ‘Superfast. Lead at Speed’. Success comes not from simply covering the ground quickly but from setting the right pace for your organisation, mindful of your market, audiences and competitors. But, importantly, is there a structure in place to ride the fast waves of change?

Good luck with the business planning. Now is the perfect time for it. We do face an unpredictable future and must remain flexible, on the balls of our feet. But, in the words of French microbiologist Louis Pasteur, “fortune favours the prepared mind”.

In the meantime, I’m nipping out. It’s just stopped raining.