Four steps for planning positive
For business owners and managers trying to navigate a path through the pandemic, staying positive is easier said than done. Sectors such as hospitality, events and tourism have been largely mothballed over the last twelve months and many others have had to make major adjustments to their working practices. Market trends that were previously evolving have now been ratcheted-up and business plans are having to be re-written at breakneck speed. Given all the continuing uncertainty many of us could be easily forgiven for having developed a "glass half-empty" mentality.
It is therefore important to acknowledge that when negative thinking takes over in the work place all sorts of words we are listening to from colleagues, news reports, etc. can build to the point where they are starting to adversely impact on future business planning. For example, in team meetings you may start to hear things like "should we try this, or maybe we can try this" - subtly infusing elements of doubt or hesitation into the corporate psyche. One way therefore of rebalancing the scales is to try to change the vocabulary by increasing the level of certainty into decision making. This is what I want to explore further by highlighting four ways of developing a positive business approach for these toughest of times.
Step 1: Forewarned is forearmed
Market research has traditionally been used as the foundation for major decisions, such as new product development or market expansion, but it is equally beneficial in business planning for more difficult cycles. Above all, it can be used to shine a light on how businesses can adjust an existing strategy or flag-up new opportunities that may now be emerging as a result of the pandemic. In a previous blog I focused on how businesses in the wedding sector had been repurposing products/services or stepping up their online presence. Thinking about what your key audiences now expect from your core products and services, plus how they should be promoted, distributed, priced, etc. is a good first-step in taking back the initiative in planning for change. Using surveys, interviews or other research techniques you may actually find that relatively small adjustments to your marketing mix can have a big impact on audience perception/behaviour, or research may begin more significant conversations about what you should be offering and how.
Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less (Marie Curie)
Step 2: Switch your focus
Dr Jennifer Wild, a consultant clinical psychologist at Oxford University is the author of Be Extraordinary (Robinson) and has written extensively on the theme of "positive thinking". She says that tweaking what you focus on and how you focus can transform your mindset. "People who manage stress well and are positive choose to focus on what they can do rather than on what they can't", she says. "They appreciate they don't have endless years to will their goals into reality, and we can all learn to do this by focusing efficiently without distraction".
The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new (Socrates)
While Dr Wild's assessment is ostensibly aimed at the individual, I believe it is also relevant to business planning and especially the idea of maximising limited time and resources. One of the main benefits of market research that I have found is that it will often help clients rank priorities, showing what changes within the organisation are likely to have the most beneficial impact. Being able to establish an order of priorities will provide a much clearer sense of business direction for you and your colleagues in the current climate, especially as many businesses have taken on extra debt and need to convince others -creditors, stakeholders, colleagues - that their planning is in sync with the "new different".
Step 3: Remain realistic
The next element for trying to stay positive in difficult times is the ability to set realistic goals. Market research can again help in providing the basis for "taking stock" of how appropriate previous plans still are, plus overcoming the assumption that things will simply "return to normal" following the vaccine rollout. In other words, market research is a simple way for you and your team to get a "reality check" from which to push forward.
In a study by researchers at Bath University (2019), they looked at personal financial expectations in life compared with actual outcomes over an 18-year period. The findings revealed that those people they classified as "realists" enjoyed much better long-term wellbeing than those who either overestimated (optimists) or underestimated (pessimists) financial outcomes. Market research is therefore one way of helping decision makers to remain grounded in their expectations and sales forecasting.
Plans based on inaccurate beliefs make for poor decisions and are bound to deliver worse outcomes than would rational, realistic beliefs (Dr Chris Dawson, Bath University School of Management)
Step 4: Be kind to yourself
One of the problems of negative thinking or an overly pessimistic outlook is that it can quickly become pervasive, so its important to also recognise your company or brand's strengths. Accentuating the positive will help with team-building exercises and employee motivation. In this respect, market research should not only be seen as a tool for identifying weaknesses as it will also highlight the good things about your organisation and its people. Generating excellent feedback from key audiences in areas such as customer service, product design or branding can provide a welcome boost and fillip to frontline employees who may often feel overlooked. Its the equivalent of receiving an independent "pat on the back" for things that are going well within your business, but may not always be formally recognised by those higher up in the business. Some larger organisations even incorporate team bonuses to customer opinion indicators. When so many of us are being asked to juggle new working practices with difficult personal situations good feedback from your customers, stakeholders or members is a welcome thumbs-up and help for boosting the business mood".
The last twelve months will have tested even the most optimistic of business owners and managers. Restrictions, lockdowns and remote working provide fertile ground for negative thoughts to take hold and to adversely impact on future business planning. Falling sales and the prospect of redundancies will naturally dent organisational confidence and can often lead to a day-day "fire fighting" mentality. But I hope the four steps outlined above will help to rebalance the scales in developing a more productive approach to business planning. Using marketing research as the basis for a grounded, evidence-based approach to planning should help you and your colleagues to increase the level of certainty and decision priority. It may not be a 'silver bullet' but having a pragmatic and realistic approach to the "new different" facing so many sectors may just be the tonic required.
This blog was written by Robert Rayner (MA Marketing), founder of The Market Research Service and formerly of Wedding ConneXions and Accord Marketing & Research.