Time to elevate “Plan B” to “Plan A”

I am not sure if I’m the only one to hear this term Plan B more often these days. My guess is I’m not.

As per Wikipedia, Plan B is a popular term used to mean a reserved, secondary plan, in case a first plan (a hypothetical ‘Plan A’) fails.  The idea of having another plan came up from contingency planning I would reckon.  I.e. to have a second plan just in case the 1st plan faces hiccups or fails completely.  In that sense Plan B is nothing but a “back up” plan. The underlying assumption is that the Plan A indeed has a large probability of success and Plan B has to be activated “just in case”. Or is it?

That we all live in a challenging environment today with variables a plenty would be an understatement.   The variables range from man-made economic types to Natural ones where we have limited control. So it is enough to say that uncertainties along the way is the only certainty.  In a globalised connected world as the one we exist today, if one region sneezes, the rest of the world catches cold.    So natural disasters of the kind like Tsunami in Japan or Bird flu in China or the Floods in Thailand and man-made variety like the Lehman Shock in the US, Currency crisis in the Eurozone or Upheavals and Uprising in the Middle East leave aftershocks in other parts of the world.  Depending upon the magnitude, the tremors can measure differently in the local ‘Richter’ scales.  But the fact is that these shocks leave an impact and upset one’s plans.  As I mentioned, the impact these leave on the Plan can vary case by case but impact it surely leaves.  So invariably we are left with no option but to crank up our Plan Bs!  So, don’t you think in the past few years we have been resorting to that Plan B more often?

In general, Plan A is likely to be made out of a liberal dose of optimism with a general “as and where is “assumption of the markets, the environment,..  and Plan B is more likely to be the more realistic type which assumes that what is likely to fail will fail and accordingly a plan of action to mitigate those failures. So in line with that it also assumes a more realistic investment and spending plan.  That brings to my argument of this blog which is – Do we really need the very exuberant Plan  A which we know we will have to junk down the line and resort to the more realistic Plan B? Why not just make the Plan B the original Plan A which targets a realistic goal, takes into account the associated risks, which plans a more measured investment and spending in the 1st place?

Most of the terms we use in business and everyday life take its origin to military whether it is the most used or rather abused phrase in business namely “Strategy” or this Plan B.  In military it is very common to have a Plan B or even Plan C or Plan D and that is because one cannot get into the minds of the enemy and there is uncertainties galore. While in that military context it may still make sense to have those backup plans, I would imagine that in business or day today life it is time to call the plan coin right! Do write in with your own views and experiences on Plan A Vs Plan B.

Tail piece: While researching for this piece, I stumbled upon a drug called “Plan B” which is apparently a Morning after pill!  This is again an example of resorting to Plan B knowing very well that this is basically the Plan A!!!

And actually my Plan A for this post was to lament on the usual Indian politics and Plan B was to write on well – “Plan B” and here again Plan B conquered the day!

The “Emerging” Mirage !

A peek into any of the corporate board rooms today across continents is more likely to show “Focus on Emerging Markets as a bullet point in their company’s strategy slides.  The reasons are understandable and more than obvious. Developed countries of yore after years of driving consumption and growth are showing fatigue and companies have no choice but to look beyond G5 to get their “G”rowth.  Depending upon the individual companies reach, the scope of “Emerging” markets may vary but it’s almost certain to have ‘Incredible India in its list. This is not surprising though.

  • A population of 1.2 bn., almost 1/6th of the world population
  • 65% of population under 35 years
  • GDP growing at 7-8 % annually in the last decade
  • Ever growing middle class population which is hungry to lap up products and services with a vengeance

The above numbers on India are mouth-watering for any head honcho hoping to take his/her business to the next orbit.  However very few are familiar with the challenges and uniqueness of doing business in India and hence unable to see thro the ‘Emerging’ mirage!

Having cut my career teeth and got my feet wet in India and also having been exposed to doing business in other countries, I’m of the view that India is one of the most complicated and toughest countries to do business and survive and here are some of the reasons why:

  • Though India is one country, it is in fact many countries within a country
    • Every 300 kms. the speaking dialect changes, the food habits and tastes vary and more importantly the taxes govt. charge gets different!
    • As you travel within the country, the cultures are different, different people types emerge
    • There is one New year ( 1st Jan ) as per English Calendar and you have the several regional / local New years spread throughout the year  so much so that many foreign companies having subsidiaries in India are bewildered that they have to follow different holiday calendars for their different branches! ( Even in China there is only 1 lunar New year )
  • The tax structure is never straight forward and is full of complications.  For example for IT peripherals – though the basic customs duty is 0% (India being a signatory of the WTO Trade treaty), the effective duty could be as high as 15 – 20 %!  There are other duties and levies like CVD (Counter veiling duty), SAD (Special Additional duty), CESS on CVD, Higher education CESS on CVD, Customs educational CESS, and Customs higher educational CESS!  The cascading sad story doesn’t end here.
  •  On the same product you pay taxes while producing, pay taxes while moving the goods from one state to another and pay taxes while selling!  If you are a salaried employee, your income which is used for buying such products is already taxed mind you!   So much taxing of the brain isn’t it?
  • Due to federal structure the above taxation rates and structure can be different from state to state.
  • The prevailing legal system in India is supposed to be strong and fair. But everybody in India knows that taking legal recourse is the last resort for settling business disputes.  Considering the time taken to settle disputes in courts companies give up or try to settle them out of court at higher costs.
  • In 1991, India got its 2nd independence i.e. freedom from the license/permit Raj and the country started warming itself to foreign investments.  However reform has become such a bad word today that there has been no re-run of the reforms since then!
  • Add to this, one cannot ignore the Govt’s  recent bungle like deciding to retrospectively change the law allowing it to tax indirect transfers of Indian assets through deals struck overseas
  • Govt.  Policies can be so very unstable that a successful policy initiative undertaken by one regime could become a monstrous scam in the next regime.  The telecom policy turnarounds are a good example of the same.  While the Uninors and the Videocons wind up their mobile business, there have been 1000’s of hapless youngsters who have lost their jobs in the process.
  • Dealing with Govt. agencies to get business done could be a nightmare and I need 100 blog posts to just explain some of the complexities.  The general impression is that the procedures/rules have all been kept deliberately complicated so that they are subject to convenient interpretations.

So any foreign company contemplating to ride into this Emerging market bandwagon may be in for some real shock and awe!

If the environment is so hostile for doing business, how’s that many of the Indian companies manage to do business and also grow and that too for years?

  • They have managers in their ranks who have it in them what I call as the “Indian Instincts of Management” which enable them to precisely think in such adverse conditions
  • Most of the companies over a period of time have developed a core competency mandatory for doing business in India which was famously called as “Managing the Environment” by Dhirubhai Hirachand Ambani (so we hear)

So if a foreign company wants to emerge successful in India it is not impossible if it can follow some simple rules:

  • Population figures, GDP numbers are all fine but the crux is business potential for your product will depend upon whether it is “essential” or it is “desirable” for the Indian consumer in terms of category.
  • Pricing strategy and requirements may completely vary depending upon if the product/service is a utility product or a lifestyle product
    • So if you conclude that you can get away with premium pricing of your highly feature rich product because Indians also are lapping up iPhones and iPads you may be in for some surprise.
    • Between value for money and lower price – lower priced products may sell more ( again could be category dependent)
  • A typical Indian consumer gives a damn to your worldwide presence.  What matters to him / her is the company’s demonstrated commitment to stay long-term in India, produce/sell quality products, provide decent after sales support and keep reinforcing that commitment
  • Between a product of Global quality (“0” defect product) and “Chinese” quality there exists an acceptable Indian quality which is – products functioning properly, not failing so often, and being serviced promptly in case of failures (I would like to believe that this is changing and more and more Indians are beginning to be more demanding. I still reckon that this is just an urban trait as of now)
  • Many of the services which involve manpower which are chargeable in other countries are expected to be “Free” in India.
  • Because of the inherent weakness in infrastructure in Indian cities, the staff productivity in India will be lower than in other countries. So better not to follow global benchmarks while planning headcount.
  • Being flexible is key to survive whether it is in Strategy, Go to Market or in planning
  • Have a solid “Indian” team to manage the business in India since for those most of the above issues are not really issues but realities of doing business in India.
  • Look at India only if you have the staying power and patience is your virtue.  For some of the reasons mentioned above even for a globally strong brand it may take a while for it to make its presence in India.

The above list may not be exhaustive. The bottom line is “In India – think like an Indian” which is to in short “Expect the Unexpected” and prepare yourself for the Incredible Indian Experience. Welcome to jugaad.in!

Post Script:

For its signature edition (next day of budget) Economic Times commissioned the biggest names in Advertising like Piyush Pandey, R.Balki, Prasoon Joshi, Joshy Paul,..to create ads on how they see India in the midst of a global slowdown.   For the same, Balki created this ad and I liked it the most and would like to share. He commented on the ad thus :

“It’s not in any brief for an ad agency to tell the client to change the product. But modern India is a ‘product’ that could do well with some change. The ad highlights the necessity as well as the opportunity to change India— to make it the real Incredible India”