Strategic planning is the process by which an organization 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 organization 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 There are very few real innovations and the plan itself is usually out-of-date before it begins.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 five-year plan. While you’re at it, forget the 12-month plan, as well. As an Agile organization, we want to move away from the traditional and static planning process towards a dynamic and Agile strategy that can adapt as the market changes. We might also call this a “learning organization,” 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 organization starts in the same place as a traditional organization: with the vision and business outcomes for the organization. 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 spending months creating and agreeing to the plan, the executives agree on how to plan. The approach that they and their teams will use to:
- Incrementally create and refine the specific initiatives that will work towards the vision.
- Embed continuous improvement into the process.
- Inspect and measure the impact the current iteration is having on the vision.
- Budget for the initiatives; if we know the expected value to the organization of the work and continue to inspect and adapt, then 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 organizations bring the entire organization (or representatives, for massive organizations) into the process. This doesn’t mean sending out surveys and asking for feedback; this means 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 organization are key to an organization's success. In an Agile organization, decisions are made at the lowest level by the people who are doing the work and have the most information. The corporate strategy is no different; the teams will be accountable for its implementation. Executives have two options:
- 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.
- Delegate the outcome to the team. Because the corporate strategy impacts the team directly, it’s a little different than 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 organization (and by definition, it’s one of 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 realize the corporate vision, and if the vision isn’t important, don’t waste everyone’s time.
Finally, there's 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 (i.e., staff attrition or industry awareness). However, be alert for vanity metrics; those that, if you improved the metric, there would be no meaningful improvement in the organization (i.e., increasing Facebook likes or team velocity).