Resources  >> When Good Ideas Go Bad: What to Do When Your Plan Isn’t Working

About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.

Written by: Vickie Sullivan  |  January 01, 2009

When Good Ideas Go Bad: What to Do When Your Plan Isn’t Working

Originally published for RainToday.com

Well, it looked good on paper. You knew that new service line, that new sales campaign would generate huge returns. But even the best of us don’t hit home runs every time at bat. Sometimes your best efforts just don’t pay off. Unfortunately, the lack of results doesn’t come with an explanation. Buyers simply don’t respond. Silence is difficult to interpret. Your new dilemma is what to do next. Below are three steps to change course when plans go awry.

First step: stop.

When initial results are lacking, it’s tempting to keep going. The logic: the plan will work if we just work the plan. Like a car stuck in a muddy ditch, continuing to punch the gas pedal results in spinning our wheels (and sinking faster in the mud). The best approach is counter-intuitive: stop what you are doing. Current efforts are not working, so there is no use in throwing good resources after bad tactics. If you’re not getting a good response, then no one will notice that you’ve stopped anyway. Finish up any loose ends and don’t start any new experiments to revive your campaign. You need time to think and drill down.

This is easier said than done. When things go wrong, it’s comforting to take some kind of action. And that action is usually the same tactics, simply repeated with more gusto. Or, constant tinkering continues the delusion that the campaign was a good idea in the first place. And then there’s the emotional aspect of disappointment. If you quit now, you have to admit failure.

Example: Consultant-turned-author, Billy bob wanted to write a best-selling book, and hired a PR firm to promote it. After three months of little press, he was concerned, but the PR folks said, “Stick with us. These things take time. Pay us more money and we’ll send out more press releases.” Billy Bob stuck with the ineffective media plan because he didn’t want to “waste” the year he spent writing. If he would’ve stopped after the first warning signs, Billy Bob could’ve introduced new tactics with better success.

Your next best step: When you accept that your plan isn’t working, you are really free to see the situation in a more objective way. And that perspective can spawn solutions that were never considered before. Ask yourself: what were the lessons learned from my experience? What am I willing to do to make this work?

Second step: separate the moving parts and make a few incremental changes.

When you finally let go and admit that the plan isn’t working, it’s easy to go to the other extreme and abandon the project. This mistake creates urgency on finding an alternative that might turn out to be worse. (This is also known as jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.)

Before you throw out the entire project, take it apart first. Failure comes in many flavors. You have to drill down and get specific. Is the feasibility off because the market changed? Were there ramifications to this campaign that you didn’t anticipate? Is your brand not compelling enough to make the tactics work? Does some element of the execution need to be adjusted? At this point, you don’t know if one small component is doing all the damage, or if the entire campaign is not worth fixing. To figure out the best move forward, you have to step back and separate all the elements and look at each one.

From the previous example: Because of his experience with the PR firm, Billy Bob decided that all PR firms were stupid and vowed never to work with one again. He still wanted that book to be a best-seller, so he launches a media campaign all by himself. Unfortunately he got the same result. Because editors didn’t respond to his press releases, Billy Bob didn’t know the reason behind the lack of response. Therefore, he didn’t know how his efforts should be different from the stupid PR firm.

Your next best step: Separate every aspect of the project and ask yourself: is this part working? If not, what needs to be changed? The more moving parts you have, the more incremental the changes will be. Make those small changes to the most obvious problems first. If the results don’t get better, move to the third step.

Third step: Redefine success based on new information and create a new plan of action.

Based on the information from the second step, you have enough data to make the big decision: should you tweak the current plan, or launch something new?

If you’re not getting the results after making incremental changes, you have two options: first, you can re-launch a new plan; or, second, you can change what you want and plan for that. There are pros and cons to each option. The deciding factor lies in your toleration for chaos. Whatever change you make can not result in lateral moves. Any change creates chaos, so go for improved condition or it’s not worth it.

Our story continues: After talking to a marketing consultant and other insiders in the publishing industry, Billy Bob learned that the topic of his book (manufacturing on a shoestring) is not best-seller material. Therefore, he changed his trategy to use the book to get more consulting clients. His media campaign focused on article placement in industry journals. This plan got great results: many invitations to write articles and several speaking engagements as well. Bottom line: Billy Bob’s year of writing was not wasted.

Your next best step: If the incremental changes don’t work, it might be time to change what you want. Go back to basics and investigate the overall feasibility of your strategy. Ask yourself: if I can’t have this anymore, what can I have? What else is out there? And given the lessons learned, what am I willing to do to get my outcome?

In our business, success is rarely a linear path. It is full of twists and turns, peaks and valleys. By knowing when to stop, make incremental changes and when that fails, go to plan B, we can keep the bad ideas from becoming disasters.


About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.