Corporate strategic planning in an agile organisation

I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

Strategic planning is the process by which an organisation defines the projects, initiatives and actions (the plan) that will achieve their corporate vision or mission. It is traditionally very time-consuming with lots of data collection and meetings amongst executives. Once the plan is complete, it is presented as a fait accompli to the rest of the organisation to implement. However, ask any executive (over beer) and they’ll admit that this process doesn’t work - there are very few real innovations and the plan itself is usually out of date before it begins.

I want to get one thing out of the way; forget the 5-year plan. And while you’re at it, forget the 12-month plan as well. As an agile organisation, we want to move away from the traditional & static planning process towards a dynamic & agile strategy that can adapt as the market changes. We might also call this a “learning organisation”; one that uses an “inspect and adapt” feedback cycle to continuously create and refine their corporate strategy.

A quick side note: a common misconception is that agile corporate strategy means dividing up the plan and incrementally delivering it using Scrum - this is not what an agile corporate strategy is about. At best, that is “doing” agile not “being” agile.

Business agility and the strategic planning process An agile organisation starts in the same place as a traditional organisation - with the vision & business outcomes for the organisation. And while the vision may change to meet market demand, it usually changes very slowly. Executives come together to agree on, and align to, the vision and outcomes (and the part of it that they are accountable for) - but here’s where is diverges. Rather than spend months creating and agreeing to the plan - the executives agree on “how” to plan. The approach that they and their teams will use to;

  1. incrementally create & refine the specific initiatives that will work towards the vision
  2. embed continuous improvement into the process
  3. inspect and measure the impact the current iteration is having on the vision
  4. the budget for the initiatives - which, if we know the expected value (to the organisation) of the work, and continue to inspect and adapt, we don’t need to know what it will be spent on ahead of time.

We also want this to be an inclusive process; more agile organisations bring the entire organisation (or representatives for massive organisations) into the process. This doesn’t mean sending out surveys and asking for feedback - this is to get the teams deeply involved in the planning and decision making process itself. In some cases, the teams will decide on the vision rather than the CEO and board.

Team agility and the strategic management process The teams within an organisation are key to an organisations success. In an agile organisation decisions are made at the lowest level; by the people who are doing the work and have the most information. And the corporate strategy is no different; the teams will be accountable for its implementation. Executives have two options;

  1. The first is to retain control over the work and act as the “Product Owner” for their part of the corporate strategy. The executive would be responsible for creating and maintaining the product backlog and actively participating in the process. This follows the Scrum process closely.
  2. The second is to delegate the outcome to the team. Because the corporate strategy impacts the team directly, it’s a little different to a standard product. If they’re inspecting and adapting the team can act as their own product owner and decide on the specific activities to achieve the outcome.

I should note here that you must fund the teams (with money and time) to do this work. If it’s important to the organisation (and by definition it’s the most important things to do), then give the team the time to work on it. It’s not a stretch goal or something to be done alongside their day-job. This is the critical work needed to realise the corporate vision; and if the vision isn’t important, don’t waste everyone’s time.

Finally, the feedback cycle. Because we’re dealing with strategic initiatives, we usually don’t have the same instant validation that we would with a product. However, constant feedback is still needed - look for a combination of lagging and leading indicators that represent success (e.g. staff attrition or industry awareness). However, be alert for vanity metrics; those that, if you improved the metric there would be no meaningful improvement to the organisation (e.g. Increasing Facebook likes or team velocity).

Interested in knowing more about Business Agility in general? Come along to the Business Agility 2017 conference on the 23rd and 24th of February -