Don't Underestimate How Much Preparation Means to Success

Ask Yourself, 'What If . . . Happens? Am I Ready to Tackle It?'

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"Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought." Sun Tzu, "The Art of War"

Sun Tzu stresses the importance of preparation and planning to succeed in competitive situations. The Art of War has long been considered a definitive work on strategies and tactics, and it has been widely adopted by many corporations as a guide on how to outsmart someone's opponent during negotiations and business dealings.

In the agency world, we have many types of preparation and planning processes that we utilize when developing new campaigns. There's a standard protocol for just about everything we do on the planning side—from the discovery process to the creative brief to the media plan.

Last summer, I took on the biggest physical challenge of my life: a full distance Ironman. For those unfamiliar with the sport, it is a triathlon that consists of a 2.4-mile (3.86 km) swim, a 112-mile (180.25 km) bike, and a full marathon run of 26.2 miles (42.195 km). At first, an event like this seems like a suicide mission for even an avid athlete. All the training in the world can't prepare you for the toll that burning 10,000+ calories in a non-stop cardiovascular activity takes. In fact, the only thing that makes it possible for a human body to sustain this distance and still be capable of running across the finish line is a tremendous amount of preparation.

The single biggest takeaway, from all my research prior to the race, wasn't a tip to make me swim, cycle or run faster. It was the introduction to the Race Plan by internationally renowned triathlete coach, Joe Friel. The "plan" is intended to help the athlete prepare mentally for all possible outcomes or surprises that may occur come race day. This includes goals, keys to success, nutrition, pacing targets, and any key axioms that the athlete feels are important (e.g. "ride for show and run for dough"). This tried and proven approach follows Sun Tsu's commitment to preparation.

As obvious as it may seem, we are often so caught up in the fine details of projects that we forget to sit back and quickly draft a simple plan of execution that will guide us from start to finish. Not only that , but we often aren't prepared for challenges when they happen. This is largely due to ill preparation and lack of contingency planning.

In my Ironman I built a contingency for potential muscle cramping that I was likely to experience: "If I start to cramp up during the run, I'll walk through the water stations to ease off, but under no circumstances will I allow myself to sit down." This statement ended up running through my head a hundred times during the run portion near the end of the race, but the fact that I'd committed my plan to paper made it easier to focus on my strategy rather than listen to my aching body. I needed to remember that sitting down would actually be detrimental, as it would be more difficult (if not impossible) to get back up afterwards.

So, at the outset of your next major project, try spending an hour or so envisioning how you want it to unfold and what milestones you'll meet. Ask yourself, "What if [blank] happens?" and then do a mental walkthrough of any steps you will follow to deal with potential issues that may arise. This is a similar process to an athlete trying to visualize a big game—imagine taking the proverbial last shot at the buzzer with a championship on the line. This mental preparedness makes it much easier to deal with adversity in the heat of the moment, and it can be a valuable approach when preparing for presentations or major campaign launches.

Thomas Stringham is the founding president and creative director of integrated marketing agency, Hot Tomali, the 2010 Ad Age International Small Agency of the Year. @ThomasStringham @HotTomali.
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