Agility — Speed is not enough

Agile strategy development, planning and operation in the mountain

If we made a survey among ourselves as business people, what would then be the word of the year? For sure, the term «agile» would get a high score. Agility is linked to speed; the time it takes from when an idea is born until it is put into action. Agile planning is inspired by a software development process, which is also used by Dynaplan. It is characterised by shorter planning cycles, and a shift towards more responsibility down the line of command.

Magne Myrtveit
Magne Myrtveit
Without a solid strategy behind it, agile planning can just as well become an instrument for making our mistakes faster.

To be effective, agile planning must be driven by agile strategy development. It is the responsibility of the agile strategy process to define the desired future, and to identify the best ideas for getting there. Given the VUCA-ness (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) of reality, our best option is to develop, analyse, and compare several possible future scenarios before moving on into the planning part. A major objective for Dynaplan is to offer agile technology and work processes that enable customers to create scenarios at high speed with a minimum of effort. The quality of the scenarios’ output is utterly important to us, as well as the flexibility we give our customers when it comes to the kinds of strategic questions they can address.

Strategy development is where the greatest ideas — and the greatest mistakes — are born, setting the targets for agile planning to aim for. Speed is not all; without a solid strategy behind it, agile planning can just as well become an instrument for making our mistakes faster.

The relationship between agile strategy development and agile planning can be critical also outside the business context. Winter is the time for activities on ice and snow in the North. If you are into off-piste skiing, you will know that it is not enough to plan your path at high speed from one obstacle to the next. To manage risk, you first need to inspect the entire mountain to identify an overall strategic path that can take you safely down from top to bottom.

In itself, agility has little meaning; it needs to be associated with the body or activity we want to assess. In the backcountry skiing world, agility is necessary on three levels, as illustrated below:

Agility in the backcountry skiing world

  • Agile strategy development uses scenario planning to identify the best route down the mountain.
  • Agile planning is an on-going process, where the aim is to address the next few challenging segments immediately in front of us.
  • Agile operation, or action, is where the skier’s physical and mental capabilities are put to the test when facing strong and rapidly changing forces of nature in real-time.

Putting this into a business context, agility has implications for the way we do strategy, planning, and operation. At the strategic level, a lean scenario process is called for, where alternatives other than the best case, or the expected case, are developed, challenged, and compared. Budgeting and planning cycles are shortened, putting more focus on the challenges at hand, and less focus on long-term plans that are likely to be outdated before they come into use anyway. Finally, agility in operation means that the organisation and its various functions need to be flexible, capable, and empowered to detect and address challenges relating to the actual production and delivery of products and services on an on-going basis.

The time-horizon for the three levels of agility varies from one domain to another. For software development, the strategic horizon can range from a few months to several years. For SCRUM, a popular agile planning process in software engineering, the planning horizon is 2-4 weeks. At the operational level, within each planning cycle agile software development advances in steps with a day-to-day comparison of actual progress versus plan.

Agility in a business context

For financial planning and workforce planning, several parallel strategic horizons can be useful, for example strategic outlooks of one year and four years. The planning horizon, traditionally a full budget year, is in agile organisations reduced to quarterly or even monthly planning cycles, where a lean rolling forecast approach is used to make the bridge from one cycle to the next.

In summary, the degree of agility can be used to characterise both bodies (personal as well as organisational) and processes. In a world where change is the norm, agility is called for — not only in terms of speed, but also in terms of ability to master the timing, balance, and continuous adjustments that are necessary to reach our objectives. In particular, it is important not to neglect the S in strategic planning. Finding the right strategy is the greatest leverage point for any undertaking we set out for.

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