Don’t Let Hakuna Matata Ruin Your 2019 Planning Meetings

November 18, 2018

2019 Marketing Planning

Editor’s Note: This guest post was contributed by Steve Goldhaber, Founder and CEO of 26 Characters.

How did your strategic planning efforts go last year? Were there a lot of meetings? A lot of wasted work preparing for those meetings? And then… radio silence? The end result? Nothing much changed from last year's plan.

Can you relate? If so, there might something wrong with how you’re approaching your annual planning. Want to improve it?

Try this simple tip. Break your planning into three stages:

  • Stage 1 — Define the problems you want to solve
  • Stage 2 — Turn those problems into questions
  • Stage 3 — Answer the questions

I know, it’s absurdly simple. It’s so simple your first reaction might be to reject it altogether. But it works. Why? The simple act of asking questions up front focuses your planning.

Remember what Albert Einstein said about the power of questions? He said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than 5 minutes.”

Is it easy to come up with the right questions? No. As Einstein implied, that’s the hard part. But once you have the right questions, everything gets easier.

The key is coming up with the questions before the actual planning session. Then, get alignment on the questions with your decision maker. Yes, this is backwards from how most people conduct planning. But, it’s also why it works. Once you get alignment, you’re ready to start your planning session.

What are the advantages of this problem/question based planning approach?

1. It focuses and engages your team

Many companies approach planning like a brainstorm session. While good things might come from this “anything goes” approach, it lacks clarity. By framing the key questions up front, your team is focused. As a bonus, send your questions in advance of the actual meeting so people can think ahead.

2. You’re aligned with the decision maker at the beginning, not the end

For most companies, alignment comes at the end of the planning process. This approach flips that on its head. Since you’re getting alignment with the decision maker up front, the only thing that’s debated are the solutions. That’s a way more productive conversation to have instead of the all-too-common reaction of, “I’m not sure what it is, but something’s missing from this plan.”

3. The act of asking a question is provocative

When you ask a question, you’re framing a situation in a thought-provoking way. Asking questions invites exploration. It forces your team to think about it over and over, until they can definitively say, “Yes, we’ve found the best answer.”

Now that we know the advantages of the problem/question approach, let’s review some tips on how to effectively ask effective questions.

Tip #1 — Make sure to use calibrated questions

What, how and why questions work best since they engage people. It’s what Chris Voss, author of Never Split the Difference, calls calibrated questions: “A great side benefit of a well placed calibrated question is it puts the issue of solving the problem completely on the counterpart," writes Brandon Voss, a colleague of Chris Voss' at The Black Swan Group.

Here are some examples of well-placed, calibrated questions for your 2019 planning sessions:

  • How can we increase retention among current customers?
  • What should we do to increase awareness of our new service?
  • How can we provide a better customer experience?

Tip #2 — Make sure to ask open-ended questions to stimulate thinking

Asking open-ended questions encourages critical thinking. This technique appears all around us. For example, ever notice that when you open Twitter, it asks, “What’s happening?" Once the brain sees an open-ended question, it needs to exert energy to fill in the missing information. That’s the beauty of asking open-ended questions.

Tip #3 —Make sure there’s a metric associated with each question

Make sure there’s a clear business objective connected to your question. Why? You need clarity on how to measure it. This is essentially the litmus test your team needs to solve the problem.

  • How can we increase retention among current customers? (reduction in churn)
  • What should be do we increase awareness of our new service? (increase in awareness)
  • How can we provide a better customer experience? (increase Net Promoter Score)

What happens if you don’t use this technique to focus your 2019 planning meeting?

Let’s turn to "The Lion King" for an explanation. Remember Hakuna Matata? You know, the “problem-free philosophy” of Timon and Pumbaa?

By the way, did you know the phrase didn’t originate from the movie? It’s actually a Swahili phrase formed by the words hakuna (there is not here) and matata (plural form of problem).

Anyhow, as you know from the movie, Simba pursued his newly discovered “problem-free philosophy.” Life was fun and care-free. But then the kingdom took a turn for the worse. But Simba eventually grows up, puts Scar in his place, and restores prosperity to the Kingdom.

What’s the lesson? Hakuna Matata shouldn’t be your approach to your 2019 planning session. Start by acknowledging problems and defining them. Turn those problems into questions. And finally, let your team answer them.

Once you do that, you’ll have a more productive 2019 planning session and a happier kingdom.

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Photo: Colin Kinner