No matter your industry, your strategic planning process could benefit from incorporating modern practices used by software engineers known as agile methodologies. This technique offers several benefits to improve strategic implementation.
Software engineers use agile methodologies in order to deliver usable “chunks” of software more quickly and adapt to changing needs in an iterative process. This is in contrast to the more traditional waterfall method where requirements are established at the beginning, development occurs in one stream and a complete product is delivered at the end.
The traditional waterfall method
Waterfall aligns very closely with the typical strategic planning process. Data is collected, meetings are scheduled and the strategy for the next 1, 3 or 5 years is hammered out before being presented in its entirety to the “users”— employees who will execute it, relationships that will be impacted by it and even shareholders who will, hopefully, benefit from it. This process can work quite well when setting a long-term vision for your organization and defining major initiatives.
The shortcomings of this approach can arise in the implementation of the strategy, where the initiatives are executed in their entirety and then measured for success when they are complete. A waterfall process may ignore or fail to react to a rapidly changing landscape due to a tendency to wait until the results are in. Also, long-term initiatives may fall by the wayside in the face of day-to-day operations and fire drills. By the time the next planning period arrives, the management team may find that opportunities have been missed, even though the strategy has been completely implemented.
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The benefits of agile methodologies
Agile methodologies can provide a great deal of value during implementation of a strategic plan. In his book Agile and Iterative Development: A Manager’s Guide, Craig Larman describes agile development as being “mainly targeted at complex systems and projects with dynamic, … non-linear characteristics, where accurate estimates, stable plans and predictions are often hard to get in early stages…” Sounds like the modern business landscape, doesn’t it?
Agile offers several compelling benefits that can improve strategy implementation:
- Adaptability: Agile is an iterative discipline that allows for quick pivots to address changing conditions and early results. Using the “Rolling Wave” approach to schedule planning, milestones are defined, but there is flexibility in how they are met. This keeps everyone directed toward achieving the desired result and not just checking off a task.
- Teamwork: The agile framework is built around cross-functional teams where each member brings a unique and highly applicable skill set. As requirements evolve, the team make-up may change as well to ensure that the right skills are available.
- Focus: Many developers leverage a scrum framework for managing agile projects. A key element of this method is the sprint—a fixed period of time (usually 2-4 weeks) during which specific tasks associated with the agreed-upon goal are undertaken. At the end of the development period, a retrospective meeting is held to review progress and lessons learned that are then applied to the next sprint.
- Communication: Agile emphasizes open and efficient communication through daily status meetings focused on what worked well, what didn’t and what will be the focus for the coming day. Progress is prominently displayed on charts, which serve to keep project participants engaged, accountable and informed.
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This is a simplification of agile methodology, but it’s not necessary to memorize the Agile Manifesto or be a Certified Scrum Master to reap these benefits. With some advance planning, and buy-in from senior management, these techniques can be incorporated into almost any organization’s processes.
In fact, Bruce Feiler delivered a TED Talk on “Agile programming—for your family,” detailing how he saw significant changes in his own home life by incorporating agile concepts. A methodology that can drive business results and stop a child’s temper tantrum? That’s a powerful tool!