Agility promotes good strategy. It doesn’t restrict it. Strategy can benefit from iterative development and learning more than any other area of business: more than engineering, operations, testing, etcetera. When we choose a strategy we set the longest vector for next actions and subsequently it pulls all other iterative decisions toward the strategy.
Strategy fails in agile environments when it remains the one thing that is given top-down at long-intervals. Often it fails to involve the people closest to the challenges with the most information. And, it fails to evolve rapidly to take advantage of changing conditions.
Agile teams often fail to deliver maximum value when the strategy fails to evolve. This a failed implementation of agile principles with strategy, not a failure of the principles themselves. Unfortunately, it is all too common.
What do I mean when I say strategy? Strategy is the art of continuously learning about both your current situation (point A) and your intended destination (point B). Then, iteratively planning the best way to navigate from point A to B.
For example, imagine you are a ship captain crossing the ocean. You spend some time before you leave learning about where you want to go and why. Especially, why are we sailing? How do we know when we are successful?
Let’s look at Columbus’s famous voyage 525 years ago. By some accounts, he failed to deliver on the (limited) vision for his journey: to find a western sea route to China, India, and Asia. Instead he discovered the “New World” for Europe. He died never fully realizing the impact he had, which was to make Spain the wealthiest and most powerful country for 100 years.
With a more agile approach, Columbus and Spain may have quickly realized the opportunity they found as an unbelievable success toward their (greater) vision. Why was he sailing for China, India and Asia? Spain becoming the wealthiest and most powerful country for 100 years surely exceeded the actual KPI for the voyage.
Success through luck still happens today, but (of course) it’s too rare to rely upon. Unfortunately, too many of us have worked toward a vision where the strategy evolved too slowly (quarterly/annually) or was only influenced by the highest levels of the organization. This is especially common when the organization has seen past success — why change?
You and the world change, you cannot stop it. Adaptation to changing circumstances is the only way to survive and thrive. Strategy and agility are critical to maximizing long-term success. Of course, we need to set strategy before we start any journey. At this early stage, our strategy must be broad enough to allow the people on the journey to update their strategy along the way. And, to arrive safely and first, we need structure (e.g. Agile) to update the strategy and keep us on track to our greater vision.
What does strategy and agile look like together? A good strategy considers that:
- The context in which we determined our strategy changes mid journey — e.g. tides, currents, moving obstacles, and other ships. Agile provides opportunities to respond to changes in your market or with your competitors.
- What we knew when we decided on the strategy changes. You learn about obstacles and risks along the way. And, you learn about paths that will accelerate your journey. The closer we get, the better our assessments are. A good strategy might not know what the obstacles, risks, or accelerators look like, but it accounts for not knowing. Often by remaining open to new possibilities, by adopting a process of inspecting-adapting to those opportunities or risks, and by having open communication.
- To navigate successfully, we need to know where we are. In software particularly, it is often hard to know where you are in your journey (situational awareness). Agile software teams ship “done” software. This gives us clarity on where we are. So when we look around, we know where we stand. Thinking you know, rather than actually knowing, where you are makes choosing the right direction a random act.
- Your destination may change. The greater purpose of the journey rarely changes. Even when the purpose of the journey is the same, an agile strategy can take advantage of market changes and learning new information to set a new destination. Yet, we rarely see this happen in software today. Moreover, maybe most important and most overlooked, we rarely recognize how to (or we are not willing to) take advantage of where we are — especially, when where we are isn’t where we intended to be.
To achieve success repeatably, there are simple steps to take from this. Get away from top-down communication of strategy at long-intervals. If you consider yourself an agile person, get your strategy people involved with your team. If you consider yourself a strategy person, get your strategy and yourself involved within your agile teams.