Using agile principles to strengthen your strategic planning and execution

by Chris Winfield-Blum  - May 5, 2018

Strategy Planning vs Backlog Development

There are a number of different approaches to strategic planning, such as commonly used tools like SWOT analysis sessions, but for the most part, the outcome is a set of goals or actions that your organisation that the group have identified to; remain competitive, achieve competitive advantage. leverage from an identified strength, or mitigate the risks associated with an identified weakness.

Unfortunately, many times these strategically significant actions remain in notes, butchers paper, whiteboards and never get effectively executed.

So within the scope of an agile scrum, this is consistent with the backlog development. They are your “user stories” that will need to be broken down into manageable pieces of work that you, or another team member, will be responsible for delivering.

Praying for Results vs Strategy Sprints

Often during strategic planning sessions, ownership is delegated to the appropriate team members. This is often done without consideration of the effort involved, other priorities and I’ve even seen these actions quickly put into the “if I get time” basket.

But hang on, you just spent a half day or full day with your most valuable (and probably expensive) resources in a room and you all agreed that these actions were critical for the business! Why would this not be considered a priority to execute and realise the benefits of the defined actions?

By implementing “strategy sprints”, that would usually run in two-week “sprint periods”, you are encouraging your team to take the developed backlog, prioritise, plan and most importantly complete the work.

By breaking down the work into smaller, manageable pieces, you are going to increase your chances of success significantly.

This is achieved through common agile scrum processes;

  • Backlog Grooming – breaking strategic targets down into actionable and manageable pieces of work and prioritising them
  • Sprint Planning – taking into consideration other commitments and priorities that staff have, planning the work that will be completed over the agreed sprint period
  • Scrums – regular reports on the progress of the tasks that have been planned. This is achieved through the answering of three questions; what did you do? what are you going to do? are there any impediments or blockers? 
  • Sprint Retrospectives – this is possibly the most important aspect of adopting agile scrum for your strategic objectives, this gives your team the opportunity to reflect on the outcomes and provide inputs and suggestions that will lead to improvements

It should be noted that in agile scrum projects, scrums are usually daily as these projects usually have a much more aggressive burndown requirement. While you could do this for your strategy sprints as well, it tends to be too much for a normal leadership team on top of their usual responsibilities and begins to eat into the value of the process. I would usually suggest weekly or twice weekly scrums for these types of sprints.  

Significant Roles

Product Owner

Ultimately the product owner should be a senior leader, if not THE senior leader of the organisation. It is important though that they also have the ability and willingness to provide “user stories” and “needs” without solving problems.   That’s the responsibility of the scrum master and team members!   Additionally, the product owner needs to be realistic in terms of expectations and prioritisation, as I’ve often said to my teams, “if everything is a priority, then nothing is”.

Scrum Master

Especially when dealing with, what is very likely to be non-technical work, there is a need to separate the scrum master responsibilities from day-to-day operations. You need to identify a stakeholder who is going to be both empowered and willing to call other stakeholders out when they fail to meet expectations, regardless of their seniority, while offering support and guidance when required.

It is this role that I fulfil with my coaching engagements; it’s hands-on, much more than your average advisor or coach, with support and accountability for the entire team, both within the context of a scrum and throughout the sprint.

Team Members

As touched on above, one of the challenges with strategic planning and execution is balancing day-to-day tasks and operations with strategically important actions. Team members, who are likely to be within your leadership group, need to have a solid understanding of their work and what is realistic in terms of prioritising between the day-to-day and the strategic tasks.

Using the right tools

There are many approaches to managing your brand new strategy sprints, but you should be considering the following;

  1. We need to maintain a high level of visibility without burdening our leadership group with additional administrative tasks
  2. We need to be able to monitor progress and communicate challenges along the way
  3. We need to be able to easily report and view the outcomes throughout the sprint period

Let me know what you think of this approach and if you would like to explore running strategy sprints with me!

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Chris Winfield-Blum

Software enthusiast, operations & project manager, MBA graduate, team builder, creator, developer, writer and father.

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