Agile EOS- How to Set Priorities in a Crisis

Here at MMG, we love the Entrepreneurs Operating System (EOS).  We run our business on it, and we support nonprofits and mission-driven businesses in adopting its tools and practices.  EOS has been transformative for us in many ways.  And yet, here we are. COVID 19 is hammering us, just like it is hammering our clients.  We are hurting and they are hurting.  Our hearts tell us to give until we can’t give anything else.  Our heads know we must innovate in a time like this to survive.  We find ourselves looking at the EOS framework and asking, candidly, does it still fit in a time like this?

The good news is we believe it does with a handful of key adjustments.  Not only have we checked in with our clients about what they need, we have also had brutally candid conversations about what our focus as a team must be right now.  In doing so, we realize EOS is as relevant as ever.  Everyone is, however, facing the reality that the rocks they created for the first quarter and to some extent all of 2020 need major adjustments. If you aren’t familiar with the concept of rocks, they come from the Rockefeller habits and are utilized in EOS.  They are defined as the top 3-7 priorities that will move your organization forward in the next 90 days. 

Organizations are also realizing that creating new rocks for even the next quarter seems nearly impossible.  Creating rocks is more important than ever, but the way we create them should be focused on analyzing risks and brainstorming ideas that can overcome those risks.  Additionally, the length of time will be shorter, and the rhythms of reviewing progress must be much more frequent.  The following is our playbook for how to create rocks over a shorter period during a time of crisis.

Developing Rocks in a Crisis: 

Length of time: Given the speed at which things are changing, 90 days is just too long right now.  Instead, there is a lot to be learned from the concept of short sprints during this time.  Look at your priorities for periods no longer than 2-4 weeks.  The goal is to identify a handful of priorities you must complete in the next 2-4 weeks for your organization to survive and be positioned to thrive when we come out of the current crisis.  Whether you choose two, three, or four weeks is up to you.  Do what feels right for your situation, based on how quickly you need results and the unique culture and skill of your team.

How to Develop: We are big fans of the Risk Mitigation tool that our friends at C-12 created. The process outlined below is influenced by that framework.  Follow these steps to identify your Rocks:

  1. Document risk factors by each of the following areas of your organization:
    1. Operations
    2. Revenue Generation
    3. Organizational Development
    4. Financial Management
  2. Assess Probability– Once you have each risk factors identified, indicate if each risk is certain, likely, even odds, unlikely, impossible.
  3. Focused Ideation- Consider the risks scored certain or likely.  Also, think about their impact.  Focus your ideation efforts on the risks that are both high (negative) impact to your organization and certain or likely to occur. Brainstorm ideas to pivot to new creative product solutions, improved service models, cost reduction measures, mission advancement initiatives, etc.
  4. Identity Filter– Sometimes, amid a crisis, even good teams can lose a sense of who they are.  To ensure you don’t start executing on ideas from your brainstorming session that are out of alignment with your core identity, do a quick filter through these three questions.  Make sure you get a 3/3 to move forward.
    1. Does it honor our mission?
    2. Will it embody our core values?
    3. Does it lean on our unique strengths?
  5. Rock Prioritization: Once your ideas pass through your identity filter, rank them from highest impact to lowest impact and effort.  You are looking for a combination of lowest effort and highest impact. Choose no more than 5 rocks to focus on for each two to four-week period.

Applying Agile Values and Rhythms:  In the Agile principles of software development, teams meet daily for a quick 15-minute standup meeting.  It never lasts longer than 15 minutes.  Borrowing from that format, get your team together and do a quick rock check.  Each owner should report on progress of their rock.  They should answer three simple questions related to their rock(s):

  1. Progress report out- What progress have you made?  Consider the following questions:
    1. Did you need to make any pivots? 
    2. What decisions were made yesterday?
    3. What activities did you complete moving you closer to achieving that rock?
  2. Collaboration Opportunities and AccountabilityWhat are you working on today?
  3. Removing Barriers- What blockers are in your way?This is an exercise for the whole team. If someone foresees an issue that will present a roadblock to rock progress, they should share it here.  Additionally, everyone should be carrying a mindset of “what happens if I don’t make progress today?”

Another key principle of Agile development is the concept of the minimal viable product (MVP).  The impact of COVID-19 should force us all to embrace this idea.  Get the new ideas that become your rocks up and running as soon as possible.  Beta versions are great.  Iterate, iterate, iterate.  Get your new service, product, etc. in front of your client/consumer/constituent, learn and make it better every day.  Focus on the 20% of functionality/value that will get your 80% of the desired impact.

Weekly checkpoints– In addition to the daily standups, each week, decide if you should continue with your rock.  With cash running low and shrinking pipelines, leaders need to quickly pull the plug on new ideas that are floundering.  If you sense early on a new idea isn’t working, the opportunity cost to keep going for two to four weeks is too high.  Review every rock and decide as a team to continue or not.   As always, with EOS, if you can’t reach consensus make sure your visionary, or integrator if you have one, breaks the tie so you can move forward.  Alignment and direction for your team are more important than ever. Once you decide to stop pursuing a rock, be sure to communicate, if appropriate, to the rest of your organization why and what the new direction is.

*If you decide to pursue a new rock in the middle of the period, discuss what you will STOP doing to make room for the new rock.  Don’t just add more rocks.  Now more than ever, your team needs to be focused on a handful of priorities.

Retrospectives– At the end of each two to four-week period, meet for 30-60 minutes to review the progress made on your wartime rocks.  Our current situation may suggest time is too short for a meeting like this but investing in this short meeting will save much more time for the next round of rocks. Review the following three questions at each retrospective: 

  • What went well? This is an open-ended question, but here are a few examples to get the conversation moving: 
    • Did we lead well? 
    • Did we honor our core values and reason for existence? 
    • Did we pull the plug on rocks when we should have?   
    • Did we work well as a team? 
    • Did we hold our daily standups?  Were they productive? 
  • What could have gone better?  This is also an open-ended question.  Here a few examples of what to consider: 
    • Did we provide direction for the rest of the organization? 
    • Did we hold on to rocks too long? 
    • How many rocks did we complete? 
    • What type of impact are our new ideas having on the future of our organization? 
    • How well did we work together as a team? 
  • What are the two to three actions we will focus on improving in our next round of rocks? 

Bottom line: Right now, leaders need to be simultaneously focused and agile.  We must choose only a handful of new ideas to pivot to, hold them loosely, and stand ready to abandon them the second it becomes clear they aren’t viable.  To support shorter periods of rocks, leaders must embrace new rhythms which encourage open communication and collaboration.  The three practices of 1)setting wartime rocks, 2)reviewing them daily, and 3)holding a mini-retrospective at the end of each two to four-week period will go a long way in developing agile leaders who can quickly allocate resources and efforts to new ideas that enable your organization to survive now and thrive in the future.  

Stay strong and lead well! 

Please reach out to us if you want to learn more about how to implement wartime rocks at your organization. 

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