Ayesha Walawalker

the future of planning

Strategists can learn from Dwight Eisenhower

The former Allied Supreme Commander knew that planning involved agility as well as strategy, says the MullenLowe Group CSO

By Ayesha Walawalkar

Dwight Eisenhower famously said: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

In an environment that was volatile, complex and hostile, the only thing he knew with certainty was that his plans would have to change at short notice. But planning - that process of establishing the current situation, setting a future goal and developing a strategy to achieve that goal - he regarded as the essential practice that enabled him to see beyond the immediate chaos of war and to focus on a bigger picture, whilst simultaneously retaining the mental agility to adapt and invent in the heat of the moment.

The analogy between warfare and marketing strategy has been drawn so often that it seems to have little insight left to offer us. And yet it has never been so apposite, not only because of the glaring uncertainty and hostility of our present commercial environment, but also because of the underlying factors that drive increasing volatility and complexity in our world.

The evolution of the web - and in particular social media – are widely studied as prime examples of applied complexity theory. They are complex adaptive systems that are chaotic and highly reactive. In other words, stuff continually happens in a way that is localised and disruptive, and the immediate environment rapidly responds without any real central control. So global effects are generally the result of an aggregation of minor local interactions rather than a controlled, top-down strategy.

In such an environment many argue that classic brand strategic planning, which sets out to create a reductive, clearly defined path from where we are now to where we want to be, is next to useless. Emergent strategy, they suggest (which monitors for unexpected opportunities or challenges and pivots accordingly, continually adapting to what is found to work), offers both more practical value and greater opportunities for innovation.

There is obvious truth in this. Emergent strategy drives the inception and growth of everything from net-based start-ups to social media campaigns. And yet. As those start-ups begin to mature, they often adopt classic strategic planning methods to position, communicate and build their brands (think Google, Amazon, Spotify etc). Why? Because in order to become brands that can command a premium and rely less on constant innovation and superior performance to retain customers, the rules of brand building need to be applied.

Brand building takes time, commitment, focus and consistency. To build a brand in a volatile and complex environment – be that the global economy, social media, or the human brain - requires BOTH the strategic planning skills to develop clear, future focused, ‘From – To - By’ plans, AND the agility to capitalise fast on emerging opportunities.

Currently strategists tend to be more comfortable with one or other of these approaches depending on the nature of the agencies in which they have learned their trade. Future strategists need to resolve the tension between the two and to recognise, as Eisenhower did, that the discipline of strategic planning gives us not only the big picture framework within which to organise our short term interactions, but the mental training to hold both simultaneously in mind.

Ayesha Walawalkar is chief strategy officer at MullenLowe Group


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