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What Do Successful Marketers Have in Common With Jazz Bands?

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Marketing plans are never completely accurate. Learning how and when to deviate from those plans requires a form of improvisation similar to the art of jazz.

Like a jazz musician who continually improvises to capture the riffs of the moment to create an enhanced musical experience, a business makes similar deviations to its marketing plan to capitalize on new opportunities or market fluctuations. But because organizational improvisation usually is unexpected, very little is known about why, how and to what effect firms deviate from intended marketing plans.

My co-author, Dr. David M. Boush, University of Oregon, and I surveyed business managers around the globe and then analyzed the data to shed some light on what causes firms to deviate from their approved or established marketing plan. More importantly, what types of deviations are more often judged as successful. Using empirical evidence, we created categories of deviations -- or post plan improvisations (PPI).

To investigate post plan improvisations in real business contexts, questionnaires were sent to the customer database of Palo Alto Software, the world's leading provider of business and marketing planning software. Hundreds of respondents were asked to recall in their own words occasions when they unexpectedly deviated from the intended marketing plan and to determine the cause and outcome of those actions. After a thorough screening process, 384 responses from planners from six different continents were examined.

While the improvisational phenomenon is complex, the study revealed some foundational concepts that can be built upon:

* It takes planning experience to successfully improvise.

Jazz and theater provide colorful metaphors for considering the potential for organizational improvisation. Legendary jazz musician Lee Konitz once said "learners must become familiar with the tunes and their frameworks before taking any liberties in playing variations or in improvising." Planners, too, need to gain a certain competency and confidence in planning knowledge and implementation practice before they can expect to successfully manage deviations from their plans.

One novice planner recalled that the company "tried various methods of lead generation (telemarketing, direct mail, sales lists, etc.) and we updated our marketing plan to reflect the 'method of the month.' We spent more time working on the marketing plan than on executing it!" The company clearly was not practiced enough with the basics of their marketing plan to improvise from it.

Firms that reported successful outcomes from plan deviations were less likely to make changes very often, while firms that altered marketing plans more frequently were more likely to report unsuccessful outcomes.

Good musicians listen to other band members. In marketing, managers must listen to many different voices including suppliers, customers, competitors and other employees. Reacting to such a disparate group requires a trained ear and a mastery of the marketing plan that allows for instantaneous, yet calculated, deviation from the plan.

* Improvisations stem from unexpected events inside the organization and out.... Listen more carefully to events outside your own walls.

External factors such as customer feedback, sales results and market conditions were the cause of two-thirds of the deviations. Managers also changed plans to counter competitor actions. In addition, nearly half of all reported deviations were intended to alter value creation (product) and value communication (promotion) combined, a finding that suggests these aspects of the marketing mix are more prone to disruption.

A third of all planning changes were the result of internal forces and half of those changes were the result of planning errors. Personnel changes or organizational dynamics such as changes in production schedules played a lesser role in deviations, while finances -- oftentimes considered a cause for change -- did not represent a frequent reason for change.

* Firm characteristics played a role in improvisations.

Data suggests the most rigid or most flexible firms were less likely to find success when deviating from their marketing plans, which is contrary to current literature. The study suggests there is an optimal middle ground with both a floor and a ceiling on the frequency of PPI.

Older firms (more than 20 years in business) reported more internal causes for deviation than expected, suggesting these enterprises have a more formalized processes that gives rise to internal causes for PPI. The frequency of internally caused deviations suggests firms could bolster marketing planning capabilities by devoting more focus on the internal environment of the firm as it relates to the implementation of the plan.

The study also suggests more attention should be paid to the timing of improvisation related to original plan implementation. An organization's relative size and power within its own market network also requires consideration since the role of competitors often is multifaceted, resulting in a more complex environmental analysis.

* Unresolved outcomes provide interesting planning considerations.

Sometimes the deviations lead to clear outcomes. By continuing to document the incidents that lead to successful and unsuccessful outcomes, we can better inform marketing managers and entrepreneurs when they should and should not deviate from their plans. However, many times the planners were presented with mixed results or unexplained outcomes. With mixed results, the deviations resulted in positive and negative outcomes. This leaves the planner with conflicting feedback that will be important in the next planning cycle or in similar situation. In essence it detracts from the learning process that is so important to success planning. Additionally, unexplained outcomes leave the planner equally unprepared to make better decisions when faced with repeating patterns of market turbulence. Improvisation performance could be improved through increased efforts to more definitively resolve unclear outcomes.