Agile Planning Cadence

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In Building the Agile Business we discussed pace layering as a way to understand agile planning and the different cadence at which elements of an organisation change. In Agile Transformation I took this further into how to link organisational strategy (which changes more slowly) through to adaptive execution (which is faster moving and changes more rapidly).

The recognition of the different cadences at which organisational components, strategy, and execution operate mean that we can create greater impact in value creation and change, and understand how to link the layers together in ways that make sense. Stewart Brand, in describing pace layering, talked about how:

‘Each layer is functionally different from the others and operates somewhat independently, but each layer influences and responds to the layers closest to it in a way that makes the whole system resilient.’

All durable systems, he says, have this kind of structure and this is what makes them adaptable but also robust:

‘Fast learns, slow remembers.  Fast proposes, slow disposes.  Fast is discontinuous, slow is continuous.  Fast and small instructs slow and big by accrued innovation and by occasional revolution.  Slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy.  Fast gets all our attention, slow has all the power.’

The Agile Planning Onion

Søren Raaschou‘s concept of Agile Planning Circles is a nice build on this. Seeing planning as a layered discipline is an ideal way to navigate and reduce complexity. He references Mike Cohn’s ‘planning onion’ as a basic layered structure where planning is iterative but iterates at different cadences from annual strategic planning through to daily execution.

Image result for nike cohn planning onion

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The idea of the agile planning onion is that the cadence and cycles become faster or more compressed as you go deeper with the inner three layers likely happening in the team environment – release planning works at the rhythm of the release cycle but it may take more than one iteration to fulfil a release cycle, and one iteration will likely comprise multiple daily standups. But planning like this enables the team to have good visibility and focus on what’s important across multiple horizons without getting tied in to an overly linear plan.

The outer three layers of the agile planning onion look further ahead. In product planning the product owner can look further out than the current release to consider the longer-term evolution of the product or system. Portfolio planning examines the potential of products to bring to life the vision of a business through its strategic planning, and where investment and effort should be made. Again, that link between organisational strategic planning and portfolio and then product planning is critical in implementing the strategic vision.

Some organisations (including some that I’ve worked with) fail to prioritise the creation of a product strategy that is closely aligned to the organisational or business strategy. The result is a weak or even non-existent product strategy which is not only poorly aligned with the needs of the business, but which can also result in product teams becoming very reactive and tactical, executing against the whims of multiple business stakeholders, leading to poor prioritisation and poor delivery of the company strategy and vision. In order to link business and product strategy well you need business stakeholders that understand the importance of product and product managers and owners that really get the business needs and strategy.

Søren Raaschou makes the point that a traditional Product Backlog can work well to contain what’s inside an Agile release cycle but if taken beyond this into product and portfolio planning can lead to challenges with maintaining the adaptability and true user focus that’s required. Breaking work down into Initiatives, then Themes, Epics and User Stories (work-breakdown structures) can be a useful way to link strategy with execution but it’s important to be wary of the kind of linear thinking that can creep in whereby in order to complete a Theme for example, we believe that we need to deliver all Epics within that theme. This belief about completing everything before continuing on can conflict with the agile principle of delivering the maximum value for the minimum effort. It’s not necessarily predictable up-front which User Stories or Epics will contribute the most value so we need to remain adaptive and able to re-prioritise at every stage.

Raaschou also notes how tempting it is to map a hierarchy of Themes, Epics and User Stories to organisational hierarchy and allocate ownership to descending levels within a business. The danger here is again that the delivery team become very executional and lose the autonomy that they need in order to make the best prioritisation and re-prioritisation decisions. Team members may also then lose the passion and motivation that naturally comes with the ability to really make a difference in the area that you are responsible for and in the visible contribution to and progress towards larger goals. Internal politics may also then skew the delivery of value towards individual interests rather than what is really needed.

In Agile Transformation I frame this as a top-down-bottom-up melding of business goals with customer needs. At the team level the flexibility is needed to reprioritise around customer need and feedback and do what is most valuable for the minimum effort. The organisation still needs to pursue its strategic direction, but in a way that prioritises customer need and value.

Agile Planning Circles

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The Agile Planning Circles that Søren Raaschou describes is a way of representing this and features three connected circles that operate at different cadences. The team, he says, should be responsible for both exploration and development with the team iterating in the green loop representing the classic build-measure-learn loop of lean start-up, and periodically moving into the blue loop perhaps using design thinking to explore new possibilities. The changing delivery and understanding can in turn inform the red strategy loop when needed but this of-course requires the engagement of the broader business in a deeper way.

The loops don’t always follow a strict sequential order with the team doing what is necessary in order to deliver maximum customer value aligned to business goals. In a separate article Søren then goes on to detail the artefacts that may be used in each of these loops.

This is a really useful and practical way of linking business to product strategy to customer need and team delivery. It embeds an appreciation of the different cadences and layers of planning but also how they connect together. All the way through the process it is the interlinking of these circles that enables truly adaptive strategy and delivery.

For more like this, you can order your copy of Building the Agile Business Through Digital Transformation and the new book from Neil Perkin, ‘Agile Transformation: Structures, Processes and Mindsets for the Digital Age’. You can also join our community to access exclusive content related to the book.

Agile Transformation – Announcing the Launch of My New Book

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I’m delighted to announce the launch of my new book Agile Transformation: Structures, Processes and Mindsets for the Digital Age. To help explain why I’ve written this book, and why I believe it’s themes and ideas are urgent and indispensable, I’m giving you a preview of the opening section to the book:

Writing Building the Agile Business was something of a cathartic exercise for me, having worked for many years to help corporates of all types become more native to the digital empowered world in the way that they think and operate. When we wrote that book our observation was that there was plenty of material that talked about the ‘why’ of transformation, but precious little that talked about the ‘how’. The book was designed to fill this gap, and thankfully it seems to have struck a chord.

The work that I’ve undertaken since that first book came about, working with a broad range of large global businesses, has served to validate a lot of the approaches that I set out in that book but it has also opened the opportunity to go deeper in to some of the fundamental areas of change and opportunity. I fully expect this book to also be a means to catharsis as whilst the business environment has fundamentally changed forever, many companies still haven’t truly adapted to face this challenge.

Digital technologies have impacted in countless ways to create a climate of rapidly changing competitive and consumer dynamics, heightened unpredictability and disruptive new market entrants, and yet many businesses remain stuck. Stuck in outdated modes of working that keep them from moving fast. Stuck with structures that originated in a different era and that actively hinder agility and horizontal collaboration. Stuck with processes that make bold innovation difficult if not impossible. Stuck with cultures that reward conformity and status rather than entrepreneurialism and originality. Stuck with approaches that celebrate efficiency over learning.

After several years of corporate focus on digital transformation many organisations still pursue rigid, linear change management programmes that are doomed to fail. Many still prioritise chasing shiny technology over empowering their people to drive lasting change. Many pay lip-service to new ways of operating without ever really changing the fabric of how the organisation works or building the culture that can genuinely support change.

More recently the potential of agile working and principles to generate business value far beyond technology teams has been recognised by some enlightened companies as a route to greater organisational agility. And yet in so many cases these principles remain poorly understood, undervalued, or badly applied. In some organisations the word ‘agile’ has become overused and abused to the point where it is no longer helpful, and where it fails to represent the true potential of what is possible. Many businesses are playing at the edges, or scratching the surface, or still failing to grasp the scale of change that is really needed.

If we are to truly reshape organisations for the new world we need to take a more sophisticated, adaptive approach to transformation. We need to rethink embedded assumptions about structures, processes and leadership that were born of a legacy, industrialised world. We need to understand how we can scale agile principles and culture appropriately to support lasting change. We need to take a far more sophisticated approach to the application of different ways of working, both new and old. There is a need to build on what has come before, to go beyond most interpretations of ‘digital transformation’ and to go deeper in to fundamental aspects of organisational structure, process, culture and leadership to help define what organisational agility really means and help leaders of all kinds to build a practical roadmap for lasting change. There is a wider need to reimagine what the organisation is, how it operates, and how it is lead.

Agile Transformation is about helping businesses to become unstuck. It is about generating an entirely new level of organisational agility. It is about transforming business to become truly fit-for-purpose for a very different world.

The book is published in the UK on October 3rd, and in the US on October 28th. You can pre-order Agile Transformation via Kogan Page the publisher or via Amazon. And you can of-course also sign up to our email list for periodic updates and exclusive content.

The Thermocline of Transformation

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A thermocline is such a great metaphor for so many things. In the world’s oceans (and indeed lakes) a thermocline is the transition layer between the warmer water near the ocean surface and the much colder water that exists deeper in the seas. Rather than there being a gradual lowering of water temperature as you go deeper the thermocline creates a distinct layer between the upper-most water which interacts with the wind and waves and the much calmer, much colder, depths. The temperature decreases rapidly at this point.

Bruce Webster uses this as a metaphor for what can happen with many medium or large-size IT projects in organisations. The ‘thermocline of truth’ as he calls it represents:

‘…a line drawn across the organizational chart that represents a barrier to accurate information regarding the project’s progress. Those below this level tend to know how well the project is actually going; those above it tend to have a more optimistic (if unrealistic) view.’

There are a few mutually reinforcing factors, he says, that typically contribute to this. Notably the failure to put in place repeatable and objective metrics to measure progress and accurately predict the project timeline, the over-optimistic view on said timeline (or planning fallacy), the desire of the project leads to avoid delivering bad news, and the behaviours of senior stakeholders that reward only good news rather than the truth.

These are the kind of factors that can not only derail large IT projects, but can often hinder the success of major transformation programmes as well. As well as a ‘thermocline of truth’ we might consider that digital transformation programmes within large organisations have their own ‘thermocline of impact’ as well – relating to the degree and depth of change and transformation that is considered necessary. At the warmer surface layer, an organisation might dabble with change. Looking to minimise risk it will make a few technology investments, or set up an innovation lab or two, or kick off a few new development projects. Yet it hasn’t actually changed much about the fundamentals of how the organisation works, or done this with breadth and scale.

This is the difference between digitisation (taking existing analogue propositions and processes and making them digital) and digitalisation (where change to business models, ways of working, processes, operations, behaviour, culture are far more fundamental). An outdated, clunky process that is digitised is still an outdated, clunky process. We might also think of this as the difference between optimisation – improving existing ways of doing things through the application of technology, and transformation – working back from first principles to be willing to reinvent the fabric of how the business works.

Both optimisation and transformation are likely to be necessary but the former is far easier and less disruptive so it alone is what often passes for ‘digital transformation’. The latter is much harder, involves much more elemental change, and so is more difficult to enact but is nonetheless often essential to generate the kind of change needed to ensure that the organisation is really fit for purpose for a truly digital world. This is the ‘thermocline of impact’ in transformation programmes. Not simply playing around in the warmer waters of optimisation, but diving deeper into the cooler depths of how the company operates – structures, culture and ways of working.

What’s also interesting about a thermocline in the oceans is that the difference in density between the surface layer and the deep ocean means that the layers do not easily mix, which can prevent dissolved oxygen from getting down to the lower depths of the ocean, and essential nutrients from rising to the surface layer. This is significant since the ocean’s deeper waters tend to be highly nutrient rich because there are no plants to remove nutrients from the water. It’s also significant since the ocean surface is constantly exchanging gases with the atmosphere and much of the CO2 that is put into the atmosphere is absorbed into the ocean through the surface layer. The phytoplankton that flourish in the warmer surface waters sequester huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (an estimated 2 billion tons every year) turning the oceans into a giant sink of CO2 which holds an estimated 90% of all sequestered carbon. When the phyotplankton die they sink to the deeper levels enriching the depths with vital nutrients. Despite the fact that they don’t easily mix, one layer is essential to the existence of the other, and their interaction is key. Believe it or not Whales, and Whale poop, play a key role in enabling this whole ecosystem. The Whales feed in the nutrient rich depths and then come to the surface to poop. The iron rich faeces creates valuable food for the phytoplankton, circulating the nutrients more evenly through the layers.

Without wanting to stretch the metaphor too far, a good transformation programme considers the role for optimisation through technology, as well as the place for genuine transformation of processes, strategies, models, culture and behaviour. We don’t need one, we need both. But it also has the focus to ensure effective interaction between the layers and that optimisation and deeper change act together to create a lasting difference. Every transformation programme needs to be aware of its own ‘thermocline of impact’ (and maybe a bit of Whale poop now and then would help too).

For more like this, order your copy of Building the Agile Business Through Digital Transformation, or you can join our community to access exclusive content related to the book. Neil Perkin’s new book ‘Agile Transformation: Structures, Processes and Mindsets for the Digital Age’ is out October 3rd in the UK and October 28th in the US.

Thermocline image: Praveenron [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

What is agile marketing

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What is agile marketing?

Here’s a short simplistic video overview (part 1)

Here’s a simple video overview of what is agile marketing?

Having borrowed principles from agile software development agile marketing increases speed of learning about your customers by deploying tests against hypotheses and then applying those learnings back into marketing and sales activity.

Don’t think of it as marketing at speed, it’s not, rather it’s focused tactics that accelerate learning. It should only be applied to specific types of marketing activity where it is easy to change elements quickly and not have a big impact to other brand and marketing activity.