Opportunities appear … then vanish more quickly today than ever before. In response, many businesses – from startups to Global 100s – are trying to accelerate their decision-making approaches. They are embracing a philosophy referred to with terms like agile, lean, and scrum.
But, as we pointed out in our last blog post, our research shows most companies are failing at the effort. They can decide more quickly, but they cannot move more quickly. They become like cars stuck in the mud: their strategy wheels turning rapidly but the organizational body unmoved.
Over the last month we have interviewed several experts and practitioners in the space of agile and strategy. Some are strategic leaders that have successfully adopted agile approaches. Some quickly push the boundaries of what we know about what agile is and how it can be applied. For example, we got to speak to Jeff Sutherland, creator of the Scrum process and recent author of Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time.
If these explorations underscore one point it is this: speed is not the same as agility – it is just one facet of agility.
Sutherland explained that there are certain principles that underpin the “scrum” approach that he founded. With this approach he was able to achieve unimaginable levels of productivity in a surprisingly wide variety of domains from software development to news reporting to automobile design. The approach achieves improvements in productivity of up to 1200%!
Some of his core principles follow. We adapted them to show how they relate to strategy:
- Divide and conquer: Divide the strategy into small strategies that can be acted on by small teams instead of, as is the traditional approach, writing strategy for the business or business unit level. Don’t create big strategies and detailed execution plans; instead, create lots of small strategies that will roll up into the big picture.
- Inspect and adapt: Don’t build a plan and then launch it – launch the plan before it is finalized. Pursue small experiments, inspect the results, and then adapt.
- Transparency: Scrum works best when everyone knows what everyone else is doing. Traditional strategy is designed for the opposite purpose: to put walls between functions so that you can trust that the other person is doing the right thing even if you don’t know what they are doing.
- Short sprints: Agile is not about running a marathon and checking in on your progress every mile, it is about running 104 quarter-mile Your weekly reviews should not be about “are we on track?” but instead about “what have we learned and what should we do next?”
- Backlog: In traditional strategy, you solve all the problems and then execute. With an agile approach you solve one problem at a time, maintaining a backlog of prioritized issues, picking off from the top of the list each cycle.
Put these all together and you end up with a very different view of strategy making. We move from a linear process in which you solve all the issues then execute on an annual rhythm to a dynamic practice in which you are continually taking on problems, experimenting, solving, and looking for the next problems to solve.
This is not just a speeding up of strategy, it is a different concept of what strategy is. We are shifting from strategy as a “thing” (a plan, a document, a set of rules) into strategy as an “activity” (or a practice).
This shift is no less significant than that triggered in physics when, in the late 19th century, physicists realized that classical mechanical theories proved insufficient to deal with highly complex problem and so thermodynamics and kinetics were introduced. We are potentially evolving from a static into a kinetic view of strategy.
So, how can you embrace this shift?
We believe there are three steps:
- Increase the rhythm of your strategy reviews: This will get people thinking in terms of shorter sprints rather than long marathons.
- Allow for greater experimentation: Shift your reviews to be less about “are we on track?” and more about “what have we learned and how can we adapt?”
- Move from a parallel to sequential issue approach: Instead of looking to have a complete strategy at the beginning of the year, create a prioritized backlog of issues and agree to knock off issues one by one. This is perhaps the hardest shift to make because it cuts against the desire of strategic planning to promise to have the answer
Your evolution might look something like this: