Modernize Strategy with Agile Planning

Just like perms, business trends go in and out of style.

You’d be hard-pressed to walk into the conference room of any organization today and not hear the phrase “We need to be more agile.” Admittedly, if you walked into that same conference room 5 years ago, however, you would’ve heard, “We need to be more lean.”

Different terms, slightly different concepts – more on that below. Of course, there are strict indoctrinations that accompany both Lean and Agile specifically (note the capitalization). But for the majority of the business world, we glom onto these words as ideologies that make our work more effective with fewer roadblocks.

As you sift through history, you’ll find similar work concepts. The common theme among them is to focus on initiatives that keep driving the most positive change with the fewest amount of resources.

The shift from lean to agile is happening whether we’re ready or not. The good news is – since we’ve now collectively spent years driving lean initiatives as a business community, we can use that experience to provide context for our agile journey.

While not every organization drives fast-paced (mostly software) projects, every organization has plans. Whether it’s a strategic, operational, or transformation plan, these plans are our roadmaps to our organization’s future. We can use the iterative and incremental approach of agile methodology and create our own hybrid of agile planning.

Managing change to move to agile planning is daunting, but with the right approach, there are ways you can adapt your plan execution process to be more effective with the principles of agile planning.

Lean Planning vs. Agile Planning

I’m currently attending business school at Rutgers University and one of my professors is the former CFO and Chief Supply Chain Officer of Schindler Elevator. Professor John Impellizzeri spent close to 25 years in the C-suite. He shared with the class the epitome of the apprehension about making a full leap from “lean” to “agile” methodologies.

Every senior leader loves the idea of lean because it saves money. They’re apprehensive about agile because it costs money.

Let’s make these pros and cons a bit more clear.

Yes, lean methodologies are obsessed with reducing waste (or “muda”) to deliver product quickly, which acts mostly as a cost-cutting measure for companies and provides a path to fast revenue. Yes, agile methodologies value collaboration and quick response to change – which can require a lot of unforeseen changes in budget along the way, but results in a more customer-focused product. They are often pitted against each other because of this fundamental difference.

It’s likely one is a better fit for your product or industry than the other, and only you know what’s best for your specific organization. But, consider looking at the benefits of agile through a different lens before sticking with the status quo of lean.

Why Start Agile Planning Now?

The truth is, as we stand today, 49% of plans don’t achieve desired results.

67% of well-formulated strategies fail due to poor execution.

Something isn’t working.

If we, as a collective business community, have been using lean-based plan execution habits for the past few years and aren’t seeing an improvement – maybe it’s time to switch to agile planning.

Agile Planning is Better Suited for Today’s Fast-Paced Environment

Harvard Business Review recently published an article titled, “Planning Doesn’t Have to Be the Enemy of Agile” written by Alessandro Di Fiore that contends the traditional planning model – decisions based solely on hard data (i.e. lean planning) – is dead and we need to move into a new era of agile planning.

(Just a note – I’m never a fan of saying something is “dead,” but I respect the article’s attempt to get us out of our comfort zone.)

Today’s market is far too fast-developing to be successful with traditional planning. While most like to think we can control every variable and make decisions based solely on hard data ahead of time, competitors and the surrounding world are too turbulent to stay on a path we carved out even 6 months ago. Organizations must constantly adapt, or risk falling victim to the planning fallacy, losing revenue, and therefore failing out of the market.

Lean planning isn’t always ineffective, but agile planning might be a better fit for most of today’s global business climate.

4 Principles of Agile Planning

In the HBR article, Di Fiore states that agile planning has 4 key characteristics:

  • Frameworks and tools able to deal with a future that will be different
  • The ability to cope with more frequent and dynamic changes
  • The need for quality time to be invested for a true strategic conversation rather than simply being a numbers game
  • Resources and funds are available in a flexible way for emerging opportunities

To be clear, agile planning shouldn’t shift your entire business strategy with the tides of change. There’s a tough balance between protecting the overall goals of your plan, and reserving the right to change the path by which you get there.

All of these agile planning principles support a strong vision of the future, while maintaining the ability to call an audible as consumers, markets, and competitors change their strategies.

Agile planning is all about a focus on qualitative data, not just numbers. Reacting to the stories of customers, network connections, and even employees can lead to feedback that can immediately be incorporated into agile plan execution.

How to Move Towards Agile Planning in Your Organization

It may seem daunting or expensive, but agile planning is an emergent trend that can truly catapult you past companies that aren’t paying attention to the human element.

Following are 3 small adjustments to introduce to your team to start to warm up to agile thinking – and eventually – agile plan execution.

1. Start Creating a Culture of Innovation 

Part of the AchieveIt onboarding process is walking our clients through an exercise to figure out which stage of cultural evolution they’re in. The 4th and final stage is called a Culture of Innovation. The key indicator of operating in this ideal stage are that you’ve broken down the rigid nature of strategic planning and you reserve the right to make changes to your plan as market conditions dictate. That sounds eerily similar to agile planning, right? Stage 4 of an organization’s strategy execution culture is all about being agile, yes – but it’s reliant upon a solid planning process established in the earlier stages.

So, you can’t start with innovation. You must have a strong base of historical commitment to execution. However, you can start fueling creativity and fearlessness in your organization. Encourage and reward new ideas. Try new techniques in sprints with well-defined budgets and success measures. Track your progress over a short, defined term, analyze your outcomes against your predetermined desired results, and make a quick call as to whether or not you should continue. Big innovation starts with small ideas.

2. Split the Difference Between Traditional and Agile Planning…At First

In the HBR article, Di Fiore asks the reader to draw a Venn Diagram with “planning” on one side and “agility” on the other. In the middle is the workable sweet spot. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

I’ve seen firsthand what can happen when you jump into any single methodology with both feet. If you claim that either traditional strategic planning is dead or agile planning is the only true way – you’d be wrong. Your company’s process and culture are unique. Borrow from different methodologies to create your own methodology that works for your team.

However – to pick a side – after being part of hundreds of different planning cycles of companies of all sizes and industries, I would agree that most organizations can benefit from being more agile. Organizations need the ability to cope with frequent changes without having to wait to create a new plan at the end of the year to implement already-outdated processes.

Start by keeping your annual or multi-year plan as-is, but insert regular frequent check-ins along the way (if you don’t already). Maybe try executing a single project plan with an agile framework. Follow up with your team regularly and assess results along the way. This will make for a healthier feedback loop and help start to allocate your resources more effectively by making small adjustments.

So, you can’t start with innovation. You must have a strong base of historical commitment to execution. However, you can start fueling creativity and fearlessness in your organization. Encourage and reward new ideas. Try new techniques in sprints with well-defined budgets and success measures. Track your progress over a short, defined term, analyze your outcomes against your predetermined desired results, and make a quick call as to whether or not you should continue. Big innovation starts with small ideas.

3. Begin Collecting More Soft Data

You only have half of the story you need to make decisions if all you have is hard data. Di Fiore states that every planning process needs to “make use of both limitless hard data and human judgment.” Agility is all about incorporating the human element to the equation. Along with traditional data, verbal feedback and context are also causing organizations to pivot.

One of our mantras at AchieveIt is, “we need quantitative and qualitative data to make informed decisions.” You absolutely need both quantitative and qualitative data in order to get a true sense of how your plan is progressing against your targets. Hard data doesn’t tell a story without context. Hard data also relies heavily on the past, with the assumption that the past will act like the future. This is dangerous. You need human judgement to make the picture of the future clearer and you’ll make better decisions because of it.

Your first steps towards incorporating human data into your plan is to start by adding a comment field to your status reports. Ask for your employees providing updates to explain why the metric is what it is, what progress was most recently made, and what the next steps are. This context around your data is an easy way to start collecting non-numerical feedback to start framing the plan execution conversation around more actionable items.

Modern Planning is Agile Planning

Change management is overwhelming. Implementing agile practices will be hard work. But in order to remain competitive in your organization’s field, you must enable your team to become readily responsive to quantitative and qualitative factors. Start by adding in some small principles of agility and flexibility into the way your team functions day-to-day and organically grow into agile planning by building up a culture of execution.

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