Agile Planning

In the agile age, the pivot is standard, disruption expected and tech innovation can change everything in a heartbeat. Many business leaders are asking themselves if it’s even worth it to try to plan for the long-term.

The Harvard Business Review recently attempted to answer that question, in an article entitled “Planning Doesn’t Have to be the Enemy of Agile.” Author Alessandro di Fiore, Founder and CEO of the European Centre for Strategic Innovation, reviews the literature and offers tips on how agile companies can still keep an eye on the long-term future.

Instead of relying upon old-school top-down management techniques, the agile workplace has spawned an entirely new way of setting goals and building paths towards achieving them.

A 2016 HBR Analytics survey found that executives championed speed to such an extent that planning seemed irrelevant. Industry disruptors can’t predict how their industry will change in even 12 months, so why force the many small teams working simultaneously on projects to hew to a grand plan? Fast-changing circumstances will likely force them to go their own ways, and the plans will be obsolete nearly as soon as they are distributed.

So forget about planning? No — just take a different approach. In fact, in today’s supercharged work environment, planning is absolutely essential.

A key take-away: “If planning and agility are both necessary, organizations have to make them work. They have to create a Venn diagram with planning on one side, agility on the other, and a practical and workable sweet-spot in the middle. This is why the quest to rethink strategic planning has never been more urgent and critical. Planning twenty-first century style should be re-conceived as agile planning.”

Some companies are forging a way ahead. At ING Bank in the Netherlands, its 3,500 employees are broken down into autonomous Squads of no more than nine people that move quickly and independently. Squads belong to larger Tribes, which contain 150 people or fewer. If Squads are almost mercenary innovators, Tribes, which involve Squads working in similar areas, are more like families that help make sure the innovation is leading towards overarching company goals.

How? Through a series of big meetings that happen across the year that ensure Squad innovation and company goals align with strategic goals.

The structure invites agile innovation and evolution, while helping keep it all on track towards goals.

Another important element for agile planning: Incorporating soft data into the planning process. Soft data involves everything from online customer reviews and surveys to opinions overhead at the water cooler. It can be generated and collected quickly, and invites quick planning pivots — instead of waiting for a quarterly government report or a six-month analysis of sales data to guide planning decisions, soft data gives teams valuable insights in snapshot form. In the world of big data, where hard data arrives by the gusher every day, it’s easy to overlook the soft stuff — and miss your next big opportunity.

Consider Nestle’s Nespresso brand, which pioneered the coffee-pod revolution worldwide. If not for soft data, the technology might never have entered the home environment. And it was the home market that transformed the industry.

Prior to developing the product for homes, Nespresso had little data suggesting it might be a hit, and hard data buttressed most of Nespresso decision-making. But Nespresso hired a young marketer from Philip Morris to lead the account, who was passionate about the potential for Nespresso in the home. His powerful arguments, combined with savvy interpretation of scant existing data, persuaded Nespresso to take a big chance. It worked.

“While hard data may inform the intellect, it is largely soft data that generate wisdom,” McGill University professor Henry Mintzberg told HBR. “They may be difficult to ‘analyze,’ but they are indispensable for synthesis — the key to strategy making.”

And vital for agile planning.