7 ways to balance agility and planning

How can you find the sweet spot between planning and agility? Consider the following strategies
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Often, planning appears to be in direct conflict with agility. Business agility ensures that your organization can pivot and react quickly, embrace internal and external change, and commit to continuous improvement. An agile organization is like a strong tree, which bends to survive in relentless wind, compared to a rigid tree, which breaks.

How can you find the sweet spot between planning and agility? It is possible with the following strategies:

1. Break down planning into small, OKR-focused teams

The objectives and key results (OKR) framework supports enterprise agility, concentrating efforts and awareness on specific strategic priorities. All parts of your organization should serve a purpose, just as each cog in a machine impacts the others’ ability to perform and achieve the desired outcome.

Smaller, more manageable teams are empowered to innovate and pivot faster than an entire department or organization, setting OKRs and attaining goals more efficiently. Small-scale, self-regulated teams prioritize and focus on the most critical tasks, ensuring that resources are optimized. An issue requiring a pivot can be addressed quickly and seamlessly because teams don’t get mired in the red tape that typically stalls many organizations.

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2. Leverage collaborative technology

Traditional planning methods typically originate at the top of the enterprise and work their way down. However, they often don’t support an agile environment.

Technology and the pandemic have pushed us all to be more collaborative across the organization. When used properly, performance management tools help align individual and team strategies and goals with your organization’s overarching plan. They also can be a good indicator of what’s working and what’s not, enabling teams to recalibrate before a problem spirals out of control.

Scalable agility, which an OKR framework supports, requires building these principles into everyday processes. It enables all employees to have a voice and opportunity to implement innovations.

[ Also read Planning vs. agility: 5 ways leaders can find a balance. ]

3. Factor learning and development into planning

By building learning and development (L&D) into planning, your organization can enhance employee engagement and investment in strategic goals. A Quantum Workplace trend report found employee engagement was at its peak in 2020 (up 3 percent from 2019), with 77 percent of employees reporting high engagement. Spring and fall of 2020 indicated the greatest engagement levels at 80 percent, with a 7 percent drop by the summer of 2021.

Leadership communication also tapered off since the emergence of COVID, creating a downward trend in employees’ transparency, communication, and leadership trust perceptions. Consequently, many employees felt their career paths were stunted or unclear.

These findings underscore the importance of L&D in keeping employees engaged and motivated and in fostering more consistent communication between managers and their teams. From the organization’s perspective, employees are encouraged to flex their adaptability muscles as they learn, galvanizing them to become more agile and enabling the organization to pivot efficiently. Coaching is an essential part of agile performance management; employees need support and direction to improve their performance.

Agile coaching helps employees hone nimble behaviors through daily tasks, particularly those related to innovation. Agile coaches create environments where employees can take risks. Even failures can be beneficial. When an employee initiative doesn’t pan out, agile coaches ensure the employee learns from the experience, informing and refining future efforts.

Agile coaches, who are often frontline managers and supervisors, may require their own coaching to truly embrace workflow agility. Delivery managers play a crucial role in this process, helping teams become more agile while keeping the organization on track so that their efforts are optimized.

Agile coaches create environments where employees can take risks. Even failures can be beneficial.

4. Commit to frequent communication and check-ins

Planning is only as good as its execution. Smart organizations maximize planning so they can thrive. Communication, specifically transparency, is essential to this process. When all employees clearly understand the organization’s goals and how to reach them, it reinforces a shared philosophy and blueprint for success.

Articulating goals openly and frequently reinforces everyone’s role and contribution. Frequent check-ins between managers and teams gauge how well each employee and team is operating. Any hiccups can be addressed in a more proactive manner, keeping the individual, team, organization, and mission moving forward.

When all employees clearly understand the organization’s goals and how to reach them, it reinforces a shared philosophy and blueprint for success.

The Quantum Workplace report also cited a lack of leader transparency and communication regarding organizational changes as the leading area impacting employee engagement in 2021. When a company’s thought leaders and trendsetters embrace agile values, the rest of the workforce will follow.

Agile leaders should demonstrate the value of curiosity and continuous learning, especially when it comes to acquiring knowledge from frontline employees. This establishes a culture of communication, where the overriding goal is making the most informed decisions possible.

5. Revisit plans regularly

Apply today’s lessons to tomorrow’s plans. Run them through potentially disruptive scenarios. Formulate a plan that can be implemented quickly and effectively. Even if you never need to activate the plan, simply having it in place will provide the agility to keep going while other organizations are floundering.

If another pandemic were to come along, how would your organization do things differently in that scenario? How would you ensure the continuation of your business and the health and well-being of your employees?

Agile companies don’t set and forget their long-term strategy. Company leaders regularly revisit their overarching business strategy and priorities (at least once per quarter), ensuring that the strategy and organizational objectives remain relevant and aligned.

6. Reassess your succession planning

As Shakespeare wrote, what’s past is prologue. When it comes to succession planning, the past merely sets the stage for the future. While there are good lessons to apply going forward, each generation brings a different perspective, experience, and skill set to the workplace. Factor in cultural, political, and economic changes and succession planning takes on new meaning. Leaders 30 or 40 years ago could never have imagined a hybrid work environment, let alone the technology and societal changes. Build agility into succession planning by implementing an adaptable operating model.

Agile teams flex with changing circumstances or needs, enabling them to pioneer new work methods. This ability, along with an agile performance management system, allows them to share ideas for improving processes and enables change implementation in quick iterations. These strategies prove valuable to succession planning since they can adapt to a change in leadership. However, too many companies still use legacy processes that don’t empower real-time feedback in the workflow.

7. Be flexible to be agile

Agile companies are strongly aligned across a transparent company strategy. They are always willing and able to revisit and realign their strategy, both internally and externally, as circumstances dictate. As the economy changes and markets evolve, this model refocuses efforts and resources on new opportunities. Disruption isn’t viewed as a barrier to success.

Agile companies take advantage of disruptions to realign business priorities or restructure processes, finding opportunities instead of obstacles. Countless companies repositioned products and added distribution channels to reach customers remotely this past year. Observing economic, public health, and market changes helped these companies make the right choices to remain competitive throughout the pandemic.

Embracing business agility puts you at an advantage over your competition. Companies that react quickly to change and learn from innovating do more than survive – they grow stronger. Build consistency into finding new ways to improve processes, products, and services, and encourage and empower your employees to lead your business into the future.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Dustin Clinard is Vice President of Strategic Partnerships for Betterworks, a software company helping to close the loop between people, strategy, and results. Dustin's background includes more than 20 years of experience in management, engineering, and commercial roles, at companies like BASF, CEB (Gartner), and now Betterworks.