Emerging market strategies: Planning and flexibility

Nothing ever goes according to plan, particularly in the developing world, and being flexible is the key to accomplishing your objectives. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But what does this actually mean for those of us who’ve created plans, implemented strategies or executed projects halfway around the world in the US or Europe?

We plan timelines for activities with almost an implicit assumption that things will go according to plan or at the very least, the disruptions or changes would be those outside of our control such as airline delays or weather conditions, not the actual tasks at hand such as meeting people, making appointments or uploading images on flickr, for example.

But in so many developing nations, particularly those like India’s or various African nations, where infrastructural variation and conditions can be vastly different from ’emerging markets’ like Malaysia for example, relying on the reliability of systems can be a costly mistake. All emerging markets are not alike. And different developing nations are at different stages of development – for example, you can find higher literacy rates amongst both men and women in an African country that is still heavily dependent on natural resources than in India, say, a nation making its name in offering back office operations and services.

In situations like this, very different from those in the developed world, where making appointments or setting targets for activities are based on people’s availability and travel time, one finds oneself taking factors into account like the fact that on that day there may be no electricity in the city whatsoever, or that there is a taxi driver’s strike or that the telephone system simply refuses to work.

How can one plan well and yet be flexible at the same time?

  • By separating the activities based on ‘time’ or connected to ‘time’ from those related to ‘information’ or ‘data’ –

The cultural attitude to Time itself is one of the most overlooked differences between countries and societies, understanding “polychronic” and “monochronic” time is one of the key elements of crossing cultures effectively.

For example if you have to visit three cities and meet 9 people, you must plan well and plan ahead, doing all the research and information gathering in advance – where do you need to go? whom do you wish to meet? how will you get there? but unlike planning say a similar trip to NYC from San Francisco, where you’d focus more on the actual days and times you would have fixed your appointments and meetings rather than whom you were meeting and how you would get there, this is the aspect would have to be flexible, almost fluidly being structured in the field in many of the developing markets.

We’d travel from SF to NYC with the implicit expectation that barring unforeseen circumstances our agenda for our time in the new location would be executed according to our plan. Diametrically opposite in the assumption when doing the same in emerging markets would be that we’ve planned well but there is no expectation that anything will happen according to our agenda or schedule. Its almost design thinking in action – your plan or intent is simply a prototype, its implementation in the field will be entirely due to observation, responsiveness and constant tweaking to achieve the same goals. There is no expectation that the prototype will work, you’re simply prepared with the information for alternative solutions.

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