Don't be an armchair general
A view from Sue Unerman

Don't be an armchair general

The cost of safe decisions could be dear.

The cost of safe decisions is often misunderstood. Ignore it at your peril.

"One of the most important – and misunderstood – ideas in economics is that of opportunity cost. Everything we do is an implicit decision not to do something else," economist Tim Harford says.

As MediaCom’s worldwide CPG planning chief Andy Walsh has said to me: this is an idea that is too often neglected in comms investment decision-making. Whenever teams default to only using proven channels and platforms that feel predictable and safe potentially, those safe decisions have a significant opportunity cost.

This explains the difficulty in progressing from an ideas brainstorm to delivering innovation in practice.

There’s also the fact that PowerPoint strategy is very different from the planning for the real world. 

All too often, the start point for the next campaign is last year’s "plan plus" – that is after the presenter has given the meeting an update on market developments and the usual competitive update. We are in an environment of constant change. With so much to contend with, people may naturally want some certainty in some aspects of what they do. The resulting plan that feels easy to buy into is likely to be suboptimal. 

In short, generals fight the last war, politicians fight the last election and planners write plans too often for last year. 

Campaigns often have a highly artificial start and end, dictated by the business plan budget and key performance indicator setting. The desire to show KPI achievement by the date of the annual review can lead to chasing a target set at a point that is a long time ago in terms of developments in the marketplace. Traditional creative development lead times might mean that the circumstances analysed in the planning phase are radically different when the campaign breaks. 

You can avoid this behaviour.

New Yorker ideas editor Joshua Rothman quotes War and Peace, where Tolstoy writes that while an armchair general may imagine himself "analysing some campaign on a map" and then issues orders, a real general never finds himself at the "beginning of some event": "Instead, he is perpetually situated in the middle of a series of events, each a link in an endless chain of causation." If you plan for change with an agile and iterative approach, you can avoid the real danger of making decisions in imperfect conditions that seriously damage the potential for growth.

More time spent on scenario planning helps here, considering a series of outcomes for the plan. One model where things get better, one where they get worse and one where they get weird. Immersive "war games" where you act as the competition or a surprising new entrant into the market can lead a path to innovation and better outcomes.   

One secret to creating a positive change in approach is transformative decision-making.  This is where you don’t just evaluate the key decisions in terms of logic or past evidence, but in terms of who or what the business wants to be.

Rather than assuming a linear progression from the current status quo, transformative decision making allows a planning process that works backwards from an ambitious goal that imagines a new landscape and what the business must deliver to get there.

Agility, iteration of planning and transformational thinking are all key to avoiding the fate of the armchair general.

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom
@SueU

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