Pat Grotto is one of the most colorful and charismatic leaders I’ve ever met. He is also the only six foot three Italian-American I’ve ever seen. As a top executive, he spent a lot of time reviewing plans and proposals from various subordinates, agency representatives, and outside consultants. Most of these encounters went something like this. Someone would enter his office with a plan or proposal. Ten minutes later I’d hear Pat booming at the top of his lungs, “Don’t tell me how many bullets you’re going to shoot! How many bodies are you going to bring me?” Moments later the poor soul would come tumbling out of his office, and it is only with great difficulty that I remain convinced that they were not urged on their way by one of Pat’s size twelve, Gucci loafers. Pat often bemoaned that getting plans and proposals with real “teeth” in them was one of the most difficult leadership challenges he ever faced.
I couldn’t agree more. The typical plan or proposal is full of inputs or “bullets” with very little about outputs or “bodies”. Great leaders are not interested in how many mail pieces you will “create,” how many press releases you will “develop,” how many sales calls you will “make,” how much money you will “invest,” or how many people you will throw at the “opportunity.” Like Pat, what great leaders want to know is how many great leads, public relations “wins,” signed contracts, and –god forbid- actual revenue you are going to generate. But instead they get plans and proposals freighted with nonsensical balderdash like, “We will build out the brand by exploiting social media while reaching out to potential partners to create the cross promotional opportunities that will lead to higher marketplace visibility for our value proposition.” Cover your behind rigmarole like this is designed for only one thing: to get its perpetrators paid for “trying” rather than “producing.” And what is almost worse, the authors of such double speak apparently think everyone else is too damn stupid to notice.
Every great plan or proposal must have teeth, and putting teeth into your plan or proposal means making projections. Projections that put you squarely on the proverbial hook for achieving bottom line results. For example, writing a press release and “getting it out” is not a goal; it is an input based activity. Projecting a five percent lift in sales in the next quarter is a goal; an output that may or may not include getting out a press release. Great plans start with projections or outputs, and work their way back through the activities and money needed as inputs. Poor plans focus instead on activities and “budget” in the forlorn hope that if we just stir up enough dust some of it may magically settle into money.
The classic example of focusing on inputs rather than outputs is our dysfunctional education system. For many years the educational establishment has used metrics like money spent per student or the number of teachers with advanced degrees to evaluate our K-12 schools. Conveniently ignored was output: the educational achievement of students. Only recently has this wrongheaded thinking started to change, and the firestorm of controversy it has stirred up is indicative of just how hard it is to get folks to stop thinking bullets and start thinking bodies. The human animal hates accountability, and that is why most plans take great pains to plan in plenty of room for ambiguity, excuses, finger pointing, and plausible deniability. God forbid that any plan should eventually be graded on a simple A –F scale.
Albert Einstein once said that things should be made as simple as possible but no simpler, and of course this admonishment applies to planning as well. Great planners allow for extenuating circumstances while never using them as an excuse to avoid accountability. And the leaders who demand great plans and proposals must be willing to bring these extenuating circumstances under control or at least factor them in. In my own career, I often used what I called an “If/Then Plan” to address extenuating factors. For example, as the vice president of marketing for a major cable television operator, my marketing plan relied on our engineering division making major upgrades to our cable systems. As a result, I presented a plan that committed me to hitting a clear and unambiguous revenue target if and only if engineering would commit to making the upgrades on time. The vice president of engineering agreed. He hit his target, I hit mine, and the CEO got the revenue he needed to make a major acquisition. Another approach to managing variables is writing “a plan to get to the plan.” The first plan conducts research so that the second can be unambiguously airtight.
In the final analysis, effective planning relies on a culture of accountability. Every member of the team must be willing to stick his neck out. Once this culture is in place just about anything can be predicted and planned for and the results measured. As the CEO of a startup, for example, I was initially told by our software developers that writing software is more art than science. There are so many “variables” and “intangibles” they argued, that bringing a software product in on plan and on budget is virtually impossible.
I listened patiently but then said, “Listen, I’m sympathetic, but I come from sales. Every January my boss wanted to know how much revenue my department was going to produce for the entire year, and God help me if we missed our number by more than 5% either way.” I went on to say that the variables that sales must plan for are of the two legged type called prospects. Prospects that come ready made with all the heart-ache and thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. And as for intangibles, a sales executive has to factor in office politics, competition, suddenly transferred prospects, budget battles, bankruptcies, and countless other acts of God and still make his number. After that we worked together on realistic plans and the issue never came up again.
But that old business axiom that every problem is also an opportunity especially applies to plans and proposals. If you really want to stand out, write a plan with teeth in it and put your competition to shame. I worked as a “hired-gun” sales consultant in the late eighties. Rather than advice or bullets my proposals invariably promised revenue or bodies, and I often took my compensation in commission to underline my commitment. I won every deal I pitched, and ended up making far more money than any mere “retainer “ever could produce.
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