How can a global organization improve strategic decision-making, align all stakeholders around an action plan, and accelerate deployment?

These were the exact questions Danone faced last year in its plant-based acceleration unit of the specialized nutrition division.

As one of the top global food companies, adapting to changing consumer behavior is always a key challenge for Danone. Consumer demand was rising for plant-based products. Danone wanted to continue to grow infant nutrition by leveraging plant-based assets from the company. Danone’s global strategy and insights team saw an opportunity to use business wargaming to help accelerate strategic decision-making and growth for its plant-based portfolio.

Business wargaming is a data-driven, agile decision-making approach that helps companies make faster and more holistic and bold decisions.

I recently sat down with our clients at Danone to discuss their new approach for agile, cross-functional and collective decision-making. Read on to learn how Danone used business wargaming to transform strategic decision-making and lead the business into a promising new market. 

Danone’s challenge: Determine market strategy and action plan for plant-based category

As a company committed to both healthy people and a healthy planet, Danone needed to respond to the growing popularity of plant-based products. 

Manuela Borella (Manu), Danone board member and Vice President for Plant Based Acceleration, was eager to ensure Danone took a leadership position in this market and maximized the valuable opportunity. 

“We were seeing the plant-based opportunity as a burning one. We felt the sense of pure urgency and the sense of really having to act now.

We needed the business units to share that same feeling of urgency,” said Manu.

She teamed up with Agathe Danjou, Global Strategy and Insights Director, to take this on. Agathe leads the transformation in how Danone uses insights to unlock trends and identify growth opportunities. Her team is responsible for driving innovation via data-driven insights, so it was the perfect challenge for her and Maxime Prayssac, Global Strategy and Insights Manager, to tackle. They both understood the importance of the plant-based opportunity and were anxious to inspire their country business units to take action.

Danone Alpro plant-based milk

Agathe and Maxime realized that they needed a new and memorable approach to not only change the mindset of the business unit leaders, but to also align everyone around a market strategy and action plan. That’s what led them to partner with SKIM and our business wargaming solution.

Danone executives adopt business wargaming approach for agile decision-making

What exactly is wargaming?

Business wargaming is a process that integrates data, information, and stakeholders to enable more holistic and agile decision-making. 

Wargame participants “stress test” various approaches to solving a specific problem by playing ‘what-if’ scenarios in a competitive environment of actions and reactions. This process enhances participants’ understanding of market dynamics, as they walk in the shoes of their competitors, leading to a better strategy planning and execution. 

Why Danone chose wargaming over traditional insights workshops

“We didn’t want to do another insights-activation workshop which would soon be forgotten. Our idea was to do something special to really bring attention to the plant-based opportunity,” said Maxime.

Danone chose SKIM to help them implement a wargame focused on developing a plant-based strategy and activation plan. Along with a sound process for conducting wargaming, Danone appreciated both our extensive experience in the consumer health category and our custom approach.

 “SKIM was first in mind because we had already worked with SKIM on very large and complex consumer insights projects in the specialized nutrition categories. We knew that SKIM could really customize the wargaming approach and define what would work for us, not just use a generic approach,” said Agathe.

What Danone executives hoped to achieve

Through the wargaming exercise, Manu and her team were looking to share information about the plant-based opportunity in a memorable way, shift the thinking of key stakeholders, and align everyone on a data-driven, strategic decision. And they hoped to walk away with a specific action plan for the regional business units.

“The number one objective of the wargaming exercise was to change the mindset of the people who were invited, the way they were looking at things, and to create some ‘aha’ moments,” explained Manu. “And also to develop very concrete and pragmatic follow-up actions.”

Integrating data and information sources for a more holistic view

When implementing a wargame, preparation is key: from making sure to have every bit of information that might be needed, so the exercise doesn’t stall – to inviting the right cross-functional stakeholders.

“When you want to move the line, you have just one shot. It’s actually worth taking time to organize it. Of course, not so long that you miss the opportunity, but enough to make sure that everything is working well and you can really make a big impact,” advised Maxime. 

Data-driven insights and holistic decision making

Arne Maas, business consultant at SKIM, led the Danone wargaming sessions. He stressed the importance of including the right information sources so you can get actionable decisions and plans from wargaming: “We always recommend a data-fusion approach to insights. This means always trying to paint as complete and realistic a picture as possible. That can only come from considering more than one information source. Once you have that 360-degree view, you’ll be in a stronger position to make confident decisions and be ready to implement them.”

Danone’s insights team anticipated the questions and concerns that might arise, and gathered relevant data and information from a variety of sources, including consumer insights research, trends and qualitative data, competitive market intelligence, scientific research, patents, and investor relations content. 

Maxime Prayssac, Global Strategy and Insights Manager, Danone

“When you’re in a big company, with many silos, the challenge is knowing everything that you have. This process of integrating different data and information sources really helped us to define what we already knew,” said Maxime.

“Furthermore, as Yuval Noah Harari mentioned in his book Homo Deus ‘Today [there is so much knowledge that] having power means knowing what to ignore’. This resonated a lot with us as we were faced with the choice of what was relevant for participants to know and what was just noise.”

“I had a lot of help from SKIM in preparing for the wargaming sessions,” Maxime added. “We needed to be sure that the setup was perfect and we wouldn’t have any surprises.”

Selecting the wargame participants

The team invited key decision makers from the country business units and from global, including Marketing Directors, Sales Directors, Healthcare Directors, Legal counsel, as well as the executive in charge of the business units. Including the regional VP sets the tone about the importance of the exercise and keeps everyone on their toes! 

The team also made sure to include cross-functional stakeholders with the expertise to answer critical questions during the wargame. Doing this is essential for agile decision-making. When all the experts are in the room, there’s never a delay due to lack of information (about feasibility, operational issues, or regulatory issues, for example). 

The wargaming experience

Danone conducted three half-day wargaming sessions over a period of a month. They were held virtually due to the pandemic and to also accommodate participants across countries.

Business wargaming for agile decision-making

The participants were divided into teams: one team represented Danone and the others represented key competitors. In each session, the teams were tasked with answering a key question and building a scenario of a competitor move, that would guide their ultimate decision about the plant-based market strategy. 

The teams used the prepared data to answer the questions and act as competitors, as they expected their competitors would or as Danone. Finally the teams gathered to deliver their answers and react as a group to what they learned.

The SKIM team led the conversation and helped challenge the teams. Following the exercise, SKIM helped prioritize the outcomes for Danone and evaluate the quality of the team’s decisions.

Danone gains fast alignment on the ideal path forward

By integrating the right information with the right people, the wargaming exercise enabled Danone to make a smart, holistic decision about its plant-based market strategy — and to act on it quickly. 

When asked what they gained from the process, here’s what they shared:

Adopting a new mindset

The experience convinced the participants that they were missing out on something important happening in the market and it was time to act on this opportunity. The organizers saw the “aha moments” happen when the participants learned how soon competitors were poised to act, the depth of their resources, and the unexpected strength of a smaller competitor.

Danone Olvarit plant-based early life nutrition

“Certain business units came out as ambassadors of what we want to do and really embraced the full story,” said Manu. “They were finally sharing the sense of urgency that we had around plant-based. This accelerated deployment.”

“With the business wargaming sessions, we were definitely able to unlock country business units that were critical for us. I would say it has been quite a milestone to really open a new chapter in the strategy, and we have achieved the objectives that we had hoped for,” she added.

A concrete action plan and regional implementation

 Danone was looking for more than agile decision-making and alignment. They wanted the business units to take action. To date, many of the participants have already begun to move forward with the strategy and action plan decided upon in the wargaming sessions. 

Here’s how Agathe described the outcome: 

Agathe Danjou, Global Strategy and Insights Director, Danone

“The beauty of business wargaming is being able to translate insights into concrete actions. In other workshops we have had, the more you present, the more questions you get instead of really putting a plan in place. With wargaming, we didn’t really have that problem because the mindset was really different. Everyone was in an action mode.” 

A stronger bond between teams

The wargaming exercise also brought an unexpected benefit to Danone’s local and global leaders: an enjoyable team-building experience.

“It clearly had a dimension of fun and joy and excitement, because competition is fun,” said Manu. “And it creates bonding. It was very nice indeed to mix together people from business units and corporate. It allowed us to create a healthier working relationship and to really see each other as partners.”

A better way to make decisions at Danone

In addition to making great strides toward their specific business goal, the strategy and insights team at Danone also initiated a trend at their company. As word spread about their success, other teams began to try out the wargaming approach to agile decision-making. 

Manu and her team are now seen as innovators, and are being asked to participate in other wargaming sessions. 

Here’s how Manu described the benefits of wargaming:

“What wargaming does, and what we managed to do in our case, is help people really understand the competition by showing rather than telling. When you put people that you want to convince in the shoes of the ‘enemy’, they are experiencing for themselves what it means to be the competitors’ position.” 

“I think wargaming unlocks something that is deep in human nature and achieves more.”

Curious about how SKIM’s wargaming approach can help your company make more agile and holistic decisions? Reach out now to discuss your needs and how we can help.