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Show Me Agility: Agile Strategy Execution

Linda Parker Gates

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The rapid pace of change in software development, in business, and in the world has many organizations struggling to execute daily operations, wrangle big projects, and feel confident that there is a long-term strategy at play. Wrestling with daily trials and being unable to see beyond immediate tasks can feel like working in the weeds. An agile strategy and execution environment, however, can enable us to win tactical battles while maintaining a focus on broader goals that lead to longer term, large-scale success. In this blog post, I write about agile strategy as a role-based enterprise capability and discuss the use of data in strategy execution.

LBL Strategies conducted a survey in 2019 to try to uncover the reasons organizations fail to execute the strategies they develop. In the study, they characterize these failures:

A leadership team comes together on a periodic basis (often within a highly politicized environment) to formulate their agency's strategy. Then, armed with specific intentions, they ask their units and teams to implement the initiatives and programs that politicians and agency leaders have chosen. All too often a gap between strategy and execution occurs for those charged with implementing directives flowing from the approved strategy.

Mapping strategy to action and then to results is one of the toughest problems in strategic planning. The LBL survey showed that only about 20 percent of organizations were "very successful" at implementing their strategies over time. The report also proposed that:

In today's disrupted environment, where agility in implementation is vital, this "strategy-execution gap" can be a fatal error driving unwanted costs, increased risk, lost opportunities and ultimately failure to execute. When failure at execution occurs, the losses are significant for both the agency and the needs of the people it serves.

As strategic planners are finding, incorporating agile principles into strategic planning and execution is a highly effective way to drive strategy development, strategy execution, data-driven decision making, and results.

Agile Execution

Agile strategy is characterized by short-cycle strategy development and execution. In my June 2018 blog post, Agile Strategy: Short-Cycle Strategy Development and Execution, I describe how an agile strategic-planning process works and the structure and importance of continual execution, which is linked to the idea of the frequent launching and execution of action plans. In the time since that blog post, the agile community has increased its focus on continuous processes, (e.g., continuous testing, continuous integration, continuous delivery), which emphasize the ability to develop and deliver software features not just frequently, but at any time. When strategy development and execution are integrated, and the cycles are shortened to support their relevance, the organization can achieve continual execution of their strategy. When strategic intention is integrated with the organization's people and culture, the organization can start to achieve continuous execution, driving quickly and nimbly toward success. Agility keeps execution and results at the forefront of the business while keeping the plan relevant. An agile strategy and execution environment have two main drivers of continuous execution: (1) a role-based, enterprise-wide strategic planning and execution capability, and (2) the use of data for continuous planning and execution.

Role-based Involvement Across the Enterprise

To keep plans relevant and execution effective, everyone in the organization should understand their role in supporting strategic development and driving toward strategic goals. A role-based, enterprise-wide capability means that everyone, according to their role, is involved in setting and executing strategy. Rather than directing strategy, leadership is responsible for framing goals, getting inputs from across the organization, and linking organizational assets to opportunities.

For example, if an organization has a strategic goal of improving customer participation throughout the product lifecycle, executive leadership would publicize the goal and the benefits of achieving it. Business developers, product developers, and coders understand how the work they do contributes to the goal and would be empowered to try new things in service to the goal. Perhaps the business-development team proposes new ways to engage with clients, while product developers devise innovative ways for customers to interact with the product. Through early and frequent exposure to strategic goals, organizational teams can drive creatively toward those goals by developing holistic action plans that invite everyone to contribute, from communications teams to human resources. Like self-organizing teams, all organizational entities can drive toward strategic goals, with the autonomy to choose how. Strategy is no longer locked in the boardroom.

Once the organization has a sense of what success looks like, work can be conducted in a way that contributes to desired outcomes. Well-documented, well-understood action plans with measures are short-cycle mechanisms for trying new things and assessing results. To equip staff to assess deviations in expected results, action plans should focus on strategic context, alignment with higher level goals, and measures. Basic assumptions about the customer environment allow the organization to note major or minor shifts, such as the way the client accesses the product (e.g., remotely or in person). Measures provide data to support decisions so that the organization can respond accordingly.

Both staff and leadership should be empowered to detect changes in the environment. Enterprise-wide, role-based execution of strategy drives organizational agility by aligning effort and resources, bringing value to activity, reducing churn, and producing strategic and operational results.

Using Data to Drive Execution

The ability to recognize the guideposts during strategy execution results in collaboration at the speed of change. Continuous execution of agile strategy must be data-driven. Once everyone in the organization understands their role in contributing to strategy development and execution, the organization will need transparent criteria for evaluating initiatives and plans.

For example, the effectiveness of mechanisms for improving customer participation throughout the product lifecycle would be outlined by evaluation criteria about what constitutes better customer participation, what points in the lifecycle are of particular interest, and so on. With visible criteria, metrics can be identified to support data-driven decision making. For the customer-participation example, decisions might be supported by data that describe customer interactions.

To be truly effective, the use of organizational data should be integrated into the organization's governance cadence at all levels. The LBL survey mentioned earlier reported that about 55 percent of organizations are reviewing and reporting on strategy implementation progress less than twice a year, inconsistently, or not at all, with the majority (28 percent) reviewing and reporting progress just 3-to-4 times a year. Only 8 percent of organizations looked at their progress monthly.

I worked with one organization that set up a weekly and monthly operational rhythm to align and deploy strategic and tactical actions. Via these well-structured operational rhythms, senior leadership could share strategic goals with the workforce. Through staggered meetings at multiple levels of the organization, operational and technical entities (e.g., product development, service delivery, financial, IT, etc.) could align their departmental outcomes with strategic intentions, make recommendations to leadership, and engage in two-way dialogue about key decisions and key performance measures. In-process metrics could then be used to understand performance variances and capture recommendations. In this process, progress on strategic progress became part of the weekly and monthly operational rhythms.

Data is the key to monitoring strategic progress, assessing outcomes, and refining targets, and agility helps to push many of the decisions to the execution functions, where the information lives. When data-driven decisions become the norm, course correction is a non-threatening tool, and leaders are in a position to repurpose resources from past and current successes to compete in new circumstances.

The Importance of Agility in Uncertain Times

Role-based involvement in strategy and execution, supported by data-driven decisions, drives the continuous execution of ever-relevant strategies. In these uncertain times--and for the foreseeable future--successful organizations will use agile methods to find effective ways to lay out near-term actions that drive toward long-term goals, and make adjustments both in response to and ahead of changes in internal and external environments.

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