Recently, I was asked by a colleague for a “social response plan” to support a major Company announcement.  I responded with a quick status update on open items, and finished by noting that our “plan” was to respond using approved messaging. It never dawned on me that I should write that down, any more than I should develop a plan to do my email.

The constant need to plan is not only exhausting, and distracts us from the actual work we should be doing, it perpetuates a planning culture that prizes process over performance. “Building a plan” is often confused with “doing your job well”. A social team can write pre-canned messaging for a plan, but absolutely none if it may be ultimately useful.

Of course, there are times when a solid plan is a good thing.  We don’t live in a world of absolutes. Carefully planning big things like acquisitions, a subway system, or a new product can make the difference between success and catastrophic failure. But it’s equally essential to take more risks, move more quickly, trust your instincts, get more stuff done, and move the needle.

At Coke, I’m lucky to lead a brilliant team of communicators with deep expertise in taking approved messaging and turning that into social media gold. How we do that really depends on how the conversation goes when the announcement is made. You can’t plan it. Very little of what you read in the pages of Coca-Cola Journey was anything more than the kernel of an idea two months ago. This Coca-Cola Unbottled post about green jobs at Coke revealed itself one night over a glass of cheap but good merlot and was a reality by 10am the next morning.  I decided to write this post yesterday. None of this content was planned. The Super Bowl was saved for me when Audi put up this social post giving Mercedes-Benz a good-natured ribbing. I highly doubt there was an “Audi Super Bowl Social Media Response Plan” with a section titled “If the Lights Go Out”. Real-time marketing and PR is, by definition, delightfully off-the-cuff. 

Over-planning also masks something far worse than pedestrian busywork: fear.  An “approved plan” provides a snug cover in case something goes horribly wrong. Even if everything can’t always be successful, it always goes according to plan. And it’s the plan’s fault.

I recently titled an internal presentation Be Brave. The upshot of that presentation was that we can’t teach (or “onboard” or “educate”) social fluency any more than I can write a guide for talking on the telephone. You just have to do it. And if Sheryl Sandberg can Lean In, we can all be braver, take more risks, plan less, and ask for fewer one pagers. Innovation, and the magic, happens when things don’t go according to plan.

America’s Founding Fathers launched the United States with one (admittedly longish) page, and they all expected to be hung for treason. History shows us that some of the best plans are often to just wing it.

Ashley Brown is Group Director of Digital Communications and Social Media at The Coca-Cola Company.