Friday, October 25, 2013

Agile Strategic Planning

There was a recent internal conversation at Mozilla about quarterly goals, what they are, and who defines them. I started to reply to the conversation, but then decided that my thoughts are a bit too verbose and also best to write in the open. The following are my thoughts on how to evolve traditional strategic planning and turn it into a living process.

What Is The Problem?

I have believed for quite a few years now that most long-term detailed strategic planning fails to deliver on the original goals. I have worked at organizations where I have been locked in a room for 2-3 days to come up with an annual strategic plan and review the previous year. I often see only 20-30% or the original annual goals being met at year-end and cringe at the time invested coming up with plans for the other 70-80% that will likely never happened.

Why Are Long-Term Plans So Error-Prone?

The world changes, problems happen, and new challenges arise that were never originally planned. Every industry has different rates of innovation and those of us who work with Web or Internet technologies have one of the most volatile envionments. I like the idea of coming up with high-level annual visions of what an organization or group would like to achieve based on their mission, but strategies and tactics should be done on an iterative basis.

At Mozilla, our projects rarely fit into nice three-month pockets of time and strategic planning should not be happening only at the quarterly time period. I believe just like the iterative software development practices that many of us use to build products, we should be taking the same approach with planning. Consider sprinting (like software makers) on your strategic plans and tactics on how to achieve success (however that is defined on your team). How are you tracking? Do you need to shift to new priorities? Annual and quarterly planning still have too many variables to be completely accurate. Monthly planning is a better approach and you should be able to predict the next 4 weeks better than the next 12.

The planning sessions do not need to be extremely complex. Just review what you are going to be working on the next 2 weeks or month and ensure everyone on the team is aligned. If what you going to be working on in the near future does not align, adjust priorities, drop projects, or shift resources. On teams where you are providing services to others, this may mean saying the dreaded "no" or better yet "not now" to make sure that your team is providing solutions and services that really have impact. If you work a lot with other teams on your projects, alignment will have to be something supported across the organization.

Take Baby Steps

Think of iterative planning like driving a car down the road, you do not lock the steering wheel into a single position, put the cruise on, and hope for the best. You are actually making constant adjustments to the steering direction and pedal inputs to navigate your way through variables that are in and outside of your control.

If you are constantly planning multiple steps ahead, unknowns just seems like another bump in the road. If you are not constantly planning and adjusting, and instead relying on truths from months ago, it is a going to be a rocky road. In our industry, reality changes constantly and thus we should be always recalibrating our focus.

Planning Takes Teamwork

The trick with all of this is that so many of our teams rely on each other to do things. There are not many teams at Mozilla that can do an entire project from start to finish without relying on another team to accomplish some task. If all teams are not recalibrating and helping adjust the focus together as a sub-team or a product team, it is very easy to block each other or have conflicting goals. Also, if teams do not iteratively plan together, one disruptive project could have a "butterfly effect"-like impact on many other teams.

Unplanned work and disruptive projects are a reality of the world and while minimizing chaos is ideal, sometimes that unplanned work can have a big impact. One of the benefits of doing short-term iterative planning is that when there is an unknown factor, you can assess the situation and recalibrate. My recommendation is to be always planning and adjusting your focus if needed and if those plans line up nearly in a quarter, great, and if they do not, keep moving! 


Unknown said...

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