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Using an Agile Approach When Things Keep Changing

If we learned anything from the uncertainty of 2020, it’s that annual planning is a vitally important exercise even if things don’t always work out according to plan. End-of-year planning is hard to tackle in normal times, and this year, it might feel almost impossible. Using an agile approach when things keep changing is an incredibly helpful tool to navigate these changing circumstances. 

An agile approach forces you to operate in shorter cycles. For your strategic planning, this might mean focusing on quarterly instead of annual goals. For more tactical pieces of your plan, it could also mean bi-weekly sprints instead of quarterly reviews and reports. 

When we talk about taking an agile approach to strategy, we generally break it down into five phases: 

  1. Define & Refine: What problem are you trying to solve? How will you know if you are successful? Why does it matter for the organization?
  2. Brainstorm: What does the ideal state look like? Who is solving similar challenges well right now? How might you do things differently starting from scratch? 
  3. Prioritize: What is at risk if you don’t engage in various tasks? What resources do you have available?
  4. Implement: What is the leanest version that will accomplish your goals? Who needs to do what by when? How long did it take you to do a task from start to finish? Where are their blockers that are stopping you from completing tasks?
  5. Evaluate: How did this compare to where we were previously? How did our target audience feel about it?

Mistakes to avoid

1. Not defining a problem statement

It’s quite common for organizations to skip the step of clearly defining their problem statement at the beginning of their strategic planning process. Many teams are on the same page with recognizing that they have a problem, so they start pulling together ideas and potential solutions only to then struggle to make sense of it all. This is exactly where a well-defined problem statement comes in. It can provide order and structure as you begin to move toward solutions. Depending on your team—and what you are solving for—a problem statement could also be framed as an opportunity statement. Taking a positive frame on an opportunity statement may be helpful depending on who you’re working with, who your internal audience is, and who is necessary for alignment and buy-in. 

Instead of starting with new technology and how it fits into your organization, think about the who, what, when, where, and why of your current challenge. We’ve found that when we identify the challenge, for example allowing for easier online event registration and attendance, we can better define what technology suits the resources and issues of that specific organization. 

2. Waiting to think about measurement until the end

Another common mistake is when teams wait until the end of planning to think about how they want to measure success. It’s important to think about your goals and how they tie to your broader organizational strategy while you are defining your problem statement. Defining how you will measure the success of your goals will give you the building blocks you need when it comes time to prioritize, implement, and then evaluate accordingly. You should ideally be thinking about measurement throughout your whole process, but planning at the beginning helps you to have a blueprint to look back at in case you get distracted during the implementation of your plans. 

3. Doing too many things at once

One of the many benefits of taking an agile approach is working in cycles, or sprints, that allows you and your team to focus on fewer things at once. With your focus less divided, you can accomplish those high-priority items at a higher level of quality. This can be challenging for teams when they do not want to give up on all of their great ideas and solutions from earlier planning stages, but many forget the value of building a backlog. You can save all of those great ideas in your backlog and even continue to add to it as new ideas come up. By maintaining and prioritizing a list of these ideas,  you can remain focused on tackling the solutions most pertinent to your well-defined problem statement.

We often use Kanban boards when working in agile to help our teams visualize the backlog of ideas and tasks we have, what work is in progress, the effort required, and what’s been completed to date. It shows how all of the moving pieces of your strategy connect to solve the challenges or tackle the opportunities at hand.

Agile strategy opportunity

We understand end-of-year planning is a big task, especially when change is the only constant you can be sure of right now. By adopting an agile strategy to planning and avoiding some of the common pitfalls, you have a great opportunity to be precise about the outcomes you’re working toward while also being flexible about how you get there.

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