The Key to Success with Agile Planning

agile leadership agile teams alignment outcomes strategic planning
Team working with sticky notes to plan

By Julie Springer

August 18, 2022

Unlike traditional or waterfall planning, which is predictive, Agile planning is adaptive. It’s about revisiting and adjusting the plan based on short delivery cycles. You regularly incorporate new insights and information to improve the plan and get better results.

The intent of Agile planning is reflected in this famous quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.” The act of planning is valuable because it is how you develop strategies and make decisions about what to do next.

The key to success with Agile planning is knowing how to validate whether you are on the right track and making adjustments when you are not. Unfortunately, many organizations hold on to traditional mindsets, even after making the change to an Agile planning process. You end up "sticking with the plan" instead of learning and making pivots to achieve the strategy.

Sticking with the Plan

Here’s a common pattern for “Sticking with the Plan”:

  • You complete your strategic plan for the year or kick-off a major project, and set the vision, goal and objectives
  • You develop a roadmap
  • You believe the roadmap is "right" and never test that assumption
  • Teams get focused on executing on the plan
  • The only measure of success is hitting the milestones defined in the roadmap
  • Managers report on timeliness, predictability, throughput and quality. Teams are held accountable to this.
  • No one measures whether the outcomes are being met

To fix this, you need to shift the focus from getting things done, to doing the right things. This requires alignment between how leaders are planning at the strategic level and how teams are planning at the delivery level.

Outcome-Driven Planning

With Outcome-Driven Planning, leaders, product managers and teams follow an aligned approach to Agile planning that incorporates discovery and delivery cycles to continually learn and evaluate progress toward outcomes.

With Outcome-Driven Planning:

  • You complete your strategic plan for the year or kick-off a major project and prioritize 3-5 measurable outcomes
  • Each quarter, leaders and teams collaborate to prioritize 1-3 measurable outcomes, in alignment with the annual outcomes
  • Leaders and teams collaborate to identify the most important problems to solve, to achieve the quarterly outcomes
  • Teams identify solution options for the problems and develop a strategy for what they think will work best
  • Teams discover, plan and deliver incrementally throughout the quarter
  • Each iteration, teams measure expected versus actual results for their solutions, along with progress toward the quarterly outcomes
  • Teams adjust their plans and make pivots, based on what they learn
  • Teams and leaders collaborate to reflect on the results from the quarter, incorporating insights and new information to develop outcomes for the next quarter

This approach is effective because it creates a focus on outcomes. The conversations and collaboration between leaders and teams gets everyone on the same page for what is most important and why. Teams are able to focus, plan and get things done, but the measure of success is progress toward the outcome, rather than completing deliverables. The team adjusts their plan if they are not getting the expected results.

The quarterly cadence creates a link between strategy and tactics. It’s difficult to predict what is possible to achieve in a year but, with practice, you can get good at forecasting what can be achieved in a quarter. This balances the need for stability with the flexibility to adjust and adapt the plan.

Where to Start

To get started, evaluate your current Agile planning process against the common pattern of “sticking with the plan” and see if any of those behaviors are happening in your organization. Do you assume the roadmap is correct? Are you focused on meeting milestones for delivery? Do teams believe that success means delivering on time? The first step to making an improvement is seeing the problem.

Then, consider what you are trying to accomplish with the plan that you have. What is the most important outcome for your business or customers? Is this clear to everyone who is doing the work? Chances are, it’s not as clear as you think it is and you haven't defined measurable results. Facilitate a conversation with leaders and representatives from the teams to define and prioritize measurable outcomes for the upcoming quarter. 

Taking these steps to identify gaps with what you are doing today and define outcomes will get you moving in the right direction toward effective Agile planning. To get the full benefits from Outcome-Driven Planning, you will need to develop skills and knowledge for how to complete discovery, evaluate solution options and validate the results of delivery against measurable outcomes. Meet with us if you would like to learn more.

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