Business plans. Marketing plans. Professional development plans. The hard drives and filing cabinets of lawyers are littered with them. For some, developing a plan is a worthwhile exercise and a means to a desired end: business development and marketing success. But for many others, the planning process becomes an end in itself. The essential next step — action — is never taken.
Why Planning Often Leads to Inaction
Inaction can result from an overly ambitious plan that doesn’t take into account time constraints. It may stem from poor planning that doesn’t align with your particular strengths and weaknesses. For example, an introverted attorney who develops a marketing plan that includes numerous speaking and networking events is unlikely to act on that plan.
Whatever the reason, planning isn’t for everyone.
Marketing plans are like New Year’s resolutions. They contain a series of goals for the year and subgoals for the month, with associated action steps to help achieve the goals. Sounds simple enough.
But like New Year’s resolutions, marketing plans rarely work out so simply. We all know this from our experience, right? The time to take an action step comes, but you’re too busy with the deposition or document review. Or the action is something you dread, so you procrastinate.
Next thing you know, a month or a quarter has passed. You recommit, dig deep for motivation, then get sidetracked again. You feel discouraged and decide to put the plan back in the filing cabinet. Better luck next year.
And there’s the rub: By developing detailed and expansive marketing plans, many lawyers set themselves up for failure because their plans are not practical. Instead of celebrating whatever marketing successes are achieved, and focusing energy on what works, they focus instead on what wasn’t accomplished.
The other big problem with planning is that it forces us to make decisions with imperfect information. Our time and resources are finite, so which activities and tactics should be included in a marketing plan? If we knew the outcome of an activity, planning would be easy. But, of course, we don’t, and paralysis often sets in.
Approaching marketing without a written plan doesn’t mean you won’t be actively engaged in marketing activities. It simply means you’ll stop being limited — or paralyzed, even — by your plan.
Instead of planning, experiment. By experimenting, you’ll learn what works, what you enjoy and what adds value to your current and prospective client relationships. As a result, you’ll be able to align your marketing efforts with your strengths.
You’ll also have the flexibility to make adjustments based on the results (or lack thereof) of your efforts. No need to agonize over progress tracking or action steps — just get after it. If you like to write, write. If you like to network, network. Follow your marketing passion and take action. If an activity is working, do more of it. If it’s not working, stop. If you’re operating according to a plan, there is often a tendency to stick with the plan for far too long, results notwithstanding.
That’s not to say that some experiments don’t come at a cost. You’ll spend time and resources conducting a marketing experiment that results in failure, but you’ll walk away from the experience wiser, and your next experiment will benefit from your new perspective.
A year is too long to stick with anything that’s not working, so don’t wait until it’s time to create next year’s plan to adjust your marketing activities. Become more nimble by experimenting.
Go Bird by Bird
One of the biggest issues with planning is that it can be overwhelming — it’s easy to be ambitious on paper, but in practice that ambition can lead to paralysis. The same can be true of experimentation, especially if the proposed activity takes you out of your comfort zone. The key is to take it step by step.
There is a great little book I recently read by Anne Lamott, called Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. It contains many lessons on creative thinking and ways to approach your work. One of my favorite passages deals with the issue of paralysis — specifically, how to overcome the tendency we all have to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the task or challenge we are facing. Here’s Lamott’s advice, gleaned from a childhood family experience:
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
We all want change to happen right now. But it doesn’t work that way. You have to put in the work. Because the amount of change we seek often overwhelms us, we procrastinate and equivocate.
But by doing something — consistently, habitually — change happens. Step by step, and action by action, your marketing activity will begin to build momentum. Little victories will pile up, which will soon turn into big results. You can’t accomplish everything today, but you can accomplish something. Just take it bird by bird.
Aim for Progress Rather Than Perfection
The key takeaway is that there is no “one size fits all” approach to legal marketing and business development. If planning works for you, keep planning. But for those seeking an alternative, try experimenting this year. Pick an activity to engage in this month and dive in. Write a blog post per week, or make 12 phone calls to clients, contacts and colleagues. Whatever marketing experiment you commit to, give it your all.
If you’re doing something you’re excited about, and in the process getting your name and expertise out there, good things will happen. Don’t aim for perfection, aim for progress. Once you’ve learned through experimentation what works for you, then you’ll be in a position to create a marketing plan that works for you.
Jay Harrington is co-founder of Harrington Communications, where he leads the agency’s Brand Strategy, Content Creation and Client Service teams. He also writes weekly dispatches on the agency’s blog, Simply Stated. Previously, Jay was a commercial litigator and corporate bankruptcy attorney at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Foley & Lardner. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism and earned his law degree from the University of Michigan Law School. Follow him @harringj75.
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