An Agile Approach to Strategic Planning

By Shaun Lee

In 2006 the FBI desperately needed to migrate its 20th century paper-based information management system to a modern software system.  After going over budget and experiencing delays, they brought in a new team that embraced Agile and Scrum.  As a result, they completed the project under budget.  Remember healthcare.gov and its failure to allow people to sign up at launch? Same story- a new team was brought in that used Agile and they got it back up and running. If utilizing the principles of Agile can have this impact on software development, it’s worth exploring what else they can impact.  The trappings of waterfall software development are nearly the same for widely used strategic planning processes. Rarely does either process deliver a product that satisfies the customer. What if founders and executive teams could learn from the principles of the agile approach and focus on impact and accomplishing their vision over creating thick plans that are seldom followed? 

For decades, software development processes left both developers and their customers frustrated with the end result.  Cumbersome project management tools that overvalued process were all too common. Developers had become so focused on planning and documentation they lost sight of what customers truly wanted.  As the frustration grew among software developers many of them shared a conviction that there had to be a better way. In 2001, seventeen software developers met at a resort in Snowbird, Utah to flush out their ideas about how to create a vision for a better way to develop software. The result was the Agile Manifesto.  Here are the guiding values they created: 

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

In his book, Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, Jeff Sutherland makes the argument that the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto can extend far beyond software development. Strategic planning is a good example of a discipline that would benefit from adhering to the above values.  There are a few shining examples of effective strategic planning frameworks out there, but many leaders are still using out of date systems that are more likely to create frustration than a plan that leads to a fulfilled vision. From 1960’s through early 2000’s it was common for organizations to develop detailed 5-year strategic plans that grew thicker and thicker through the years. Once the top of the organization completed the plans, they handed them off to middle management to execute.  Few of the plans had a mechanism to adjust, scrap or create new goals in reaction to changing variables they were facing.  

Many leaders were equally frustrated by strategic planning as the software developers were with the processes they used to create products for their customers. Many leaders don’t want to spend the time necessary to create a strategic plan, because they simply don’t think it will be a process that will advance their goals. I can relate to how they feel… In 2004, I worked for an organization that took a full year to develop a 5-year plan.  By the time the plan was complete, many of the strategic goals for the first couple of years were no longer even being pursued. As a result, the plan was mocked and largely seen as a waste of valuable resources.   

Cue the entry for the lean entrepreneur, who doesn’t have the time or resources to even dream about setting a year aside to ONLY plan. Out of those natural pressures to perform in an environment of scarce resources, some incredibly useful frameworks have emerged.  Tight parameters and boundaries can often drive better solutions than having an entire strategic planning department. This is the reality for most small business owners and nonprofit leaders. The term entrepreneur shouldn’t be limited to for-profits, either. There are incredible leaders in nonprofits with boundless imagination and creativity that are solving some of the most significant problems that exist. The Entrepreneurs Operating System (EOS) is a good example of a strategic planning framework that can help leaders to document their vision while also providing tools that move the vision down to the ground so it can be executed.

In revisiting the Agile values, there are significant overlapping values that EOS embodies in their tool set:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools: EOS emphasizes the importance of developing core values that everyone in the organization shares. It also borrows strongly from Jim Collins’ “right bus and right seat” analogy.  Meaning, everyone must believe and live out the core values of the organization to be a good fit.
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation: The old strategic plans resulted in plans thicker than Moby Dick in many cases.  The EOS Vision/ Traction Organizer helps leaders develop a simple 2-page strategic framework.  Essentially, it’s a working (dare I say, agile?) strategy over a very long and difficult to adopt strategy.
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation: EOS implementers facilitate discussions that harvest the vision and plan to achieve it from their clients.  They lean on relationships of trust in order to work through the most important aspects of organizational development and planning.
  • Responding to change over following a plan:  Perhaps the best part of the EOS model is that it forces leaders to update their most important strategic goals every quarter.  Additionally, quarterly goals should be reviewed briefly once a week. This allows for adjustments to be made in real-time as needed.  No need to call in a committee to adjust the plan. The leadership team can simply make the changes necessary to accomplish the vision.

The speed of change is only getting faster and faster.  Leaders need strategic planning tools that allow them to adjust the plan as close to real time as possible.  Otherwise they will become a slave to their process instead of their vision. Increasingly, a leader’s role is not to manage tasks and activities but rather to direct passion and purpose.  Frameworks like EOS may provide the same value to leaders who are looking to build a shared vision and strategic plan as the agile approach has for the world of software development. Contact us to learn more!

An Agile Approach to Strategic Planning

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