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I know why having a Plan B can help achieve Plan A in 2017

by Philip Hesketh

When M&S launched their Sustainability Policy a few years ago, they did so with an ad campaign that boldly stated

‘Plan A. Because there is no Plan B’.

A confident stance or just a naïve boast? Well, I guess only time will tell. However, for most companies, having a Plan B for 2017 is a useful strategy. It’s a sort of safety net. A fallback position. A contingency plan. Call it what you will, it suggests that you’ve thought things through, considered other, less likely but possible events, and won’t be caught out if the unthinkable happens this year.

So here’s the conundrum. Is having a Plan B a good thing or just a distraction? Does it motivate you to make Plan A work, or can it be counter-productive and encourage complacency? In business terms, a Plan B can be a secondary offer you present to a buyer just in case the first one isn’t attractive enough. But then tabling this offer might very well influence their decision about the first one – the one you really want them to take. I don’t know about you but I’m a little confused at this point. So it’s a good time to introduce two research scientists by the name of Huang and Zhang.

You may not have heard of these guys before but think of them as a Chinese version of the Chuckle brothers. Except they’re not brothers. And one of them is a woman. And I’m not sure if they’re Chinese or American. In fact, forget the whole Chuckle brother analogy – I clearly hadn’t thought that through. Anyway, determined to discover the merits of having a Plan B, they set up a cunning experiment entitled ‘All roads lead to Rome’.

Don’t ask - it just confuses things.

Anyway, Huang and Zhang set out to discover if thinking about alternative ways to achieve your end goal actually helped. Even if you never have to use them, So two groups of participants were invited to sign up for a coffee shop promotion in which they could get a free coffee with every six stamps collected on a card. Sound familiar? However, one group was given the impression that they had more opportunities to collect stamps than they actually had. In effect, the researchers were removing the idea of needing a Plan B from this group and simply observing the motivational effect of thinking they had an advantage.

The results showed that those who thought there were more alternative ways of collecting the stamps were almost twice as likely to sign up for the promotion. However, they also discovered that when people got close to achieving their goal, being presented with alternatives had a negative effect. For instance, people with five stamps on their loyalty card were actually demotivated to get the sixth. Some even gave up coffee.

Why so? Well, it’s to do with the psychology of choice. It seems that having several choices – which a Plan B provides - is more motivating at the beginning of a task, but becomes a pain towards the end. In other words, what starts out as reassuring ends up becoming distracting. So the key is to offer a few options at the start to help initial motivation, but then later on, when success is all but assured, forget about Plan B and push on for victory.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’ve got an identical article to this one to write. Just in case.