Traditional strategic planning is dying. In today’s dynamic world fewer and fewer organisations practise the conventional process of ‘forecast ahead, prepare 3-year plan, then get staff to implement’. This rigid, top-down approach is in complete contrast to the approach used today by, for instance, leading tech companies where, using the context of a visionary framework they have defined, goals and actions are decided and reviewed every few months for staff teams, and strategy emerges from their ongoing innovations and tactical decisions. In effect, strategy merges with tactics.
This summer, after a lovely 2 week holiday in Tuscany, I returned to Leeds and straight into a classroom full of government senior leaders discussing agile and user-centred design. Their challenges set me thinking once more about the relationship between technology and social relations in the world of work. One well-known story from the Italy of 400 years ago is helping me make sense of it all.
An organisation cannot have a long term strategy and have agile delivery.
A strategy, by definition, is “a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim.” It is, because of the way it is typically approached, a long-term plan to achieve the long-term goal. And often this is for good reasons within an organisation, including the amount of time doing “strategic work” takes away from the actual delivery work and because it is often seen as a means providing clear and steady guidance, to signal certainty and reliability.
Agile delivery, is characterised as “iteratively delivering incremental value by responding to change quickly”. It’s mostly associated with software development but the principles and practices apply equally well in all kinds of disciplines and functions. An agile delivery approach requires shorter time spans, in fact the shorter the better, in order to plan the work, do it, and review what that work achieved.
An organisation can have a long term strategy with fixed delivery, or agile delivery with shorter planning cycles and faster feedback mechanisms. But it can’t have a long-term strategy that is delivered in an agile way.
Both can work towards achieving the same goals.
They are just different approaches. One approach says, ‘We know where we want to get to, and we think it’s going to take us this long to get there, so we’re going to walk in that direction for that length of time and then see whether we got there’. The other approach says, ‘We know where we want to to get to, but we don’t know how long it’s going to take, and we’re not even sure which direction to go in, so we’re going to take a few steps and then check whether we’re any closer to where we want to get to’.
Same goal, different approaches. Choosing one approach instead of the other doesn’t change the goal, although it arguable changes how likely the organisation is to achieve the goal.
Both approaches are about reducing risk, they just have different perceptions of risk.
The agile approach considers not responding to change and carrying on regardless as the biggest risk to achieving the goal. Being agile is about reducing risk by taking small steps and checking to see if they were the right steps, and changing direction if they weren’t.
The long-term strategy approach perceives the biggest risk to be not having a plan to follow and the perceived insecurity and uncertainty that comes from that. So, the best way to reduce risk is to get the best people to spend lots of time doing the strategic planning so that they get it right. They are expected to use their experience and expertise to predict the future, which is a stable world with a predictable economy and very little disruptive technology, they used to be able to do.
One doesn’t deliver faster than the other, or cost less. Being an organisation with a five year strategy provides certainty. Being an organisation that agile provides flexibility. But in fact, both certainty and flexibility take a great deal to achieve and are both as illusionary as each other.
Long term strategy and agile are on a continuum
Long term strategy and agile delivery, whilst not able to co-exist, are not opposites. They are on the same continuum of approaches to achieving a goal through planning to reduce the risk of not achieving the goal.
An organisation that plans its strategy every five years is at one end of the continuum, and an organisation that chooses what work to focus on on a daily basis is at the other end.
If the strategic planning cycle changes from once every five years to annual, the organisation is now five times as agile as they used to be. If they then go to quarterly planning they are now four times as agile and twenty times as agile as they originally were. If they go to weekly planning they are 260 times as agile as they were when they started.
Can you really not have both?
Some may argue that an organisation can have a long-term strategy that is delivered in an agile way because then the users are getting some value from the organisation earlier than they might otherwise, and yes, the organisation might get lucky and accidentally deliver something of value, or the users might have no choice and have to accept it regardless. But the key aspect of the agile delivery approach, in fact the reason for working in short cycles and collecting feedback, is that being able to respond to change. So even if the work is delivered incrementally, if it turns out to be wrong but has to continue to follow the long-term strategy then all an organisation gets from trying to have a long-term long and agile delivery is some awareness that it is going the wrong way but is unable to do anything about it until the next planning cycle.