An eagle can spot a rabbit on the ground from a mile away. When the raptor catches sight of a potential meal, it locks on and dives straight for it. A jaguar takes a different approach. Quick and nimble, it gives chase, adjusting in the blink of an eye to outmaneuver and overtake its prey.
Which method is better? Well, it depends on whether you're a an eagle or a jaguar.
In a recent webinar, two strategic planning experts, John Kaminski and Joseph Flahiff, walked an audience of business leaders through the sequential and agile approaches to strategic planning. They defined what made each approach different and helped their audience determine which approach would be most effective for their unique businesses. You can view the webinar in its entirety here.
When it comes to strategic planning for your business, your greatest success will depend on whether your objective is better served by a sequential or an agile approach. In other words, is your business an eagle or a jaguar?
Strategic Planning Depends on Your Business
“Strategy is obviously the way we go about getting things done and planning to get things done in the future," said Joseph. "If there’s one thing we learned in 2020, it's one size doesn’t fit all. Some strategies are for some types of organizations, others are for other types."
Sequential is well established and well known among business leaders because of its tried and true results. Agile, sometimes called nimble, is the newer of the two approaches and allows for greater adaptation. Sequential can adapt, too, but agile accounts for, plans for and optimizes to adaptation.
Before we can examine which method is best for your business, we need to deal with the elephant in the room.
Something is Very Wrong with Strategic Planning
“Statistically, strategic planning doesn’t work," said John. "Best case scenario, maybe a third of the time do people achieve their strategic goals.”
Strategic planning fails for many reasons. Here are some of the main culprits:
All of these are reasons people fail to achieve their plans. So what do we do about it?
Strategy starts with ideas. How do we turn an idea into reality? In other words, how do we get from strategy to execution? There’s a gap between the two. We can't think an idea into reality; we have to take action.
The Same Three Steps
In order to do anything, we have to take three steps:
- Figure out what we want to do
- Figure out how we're going to do it
- Do it
Whether you're making dinner, managing a project or running a business, these three steps are foundational to getting anything done. In project management, these three steps get rolled into two major categories: plan and focus. The plan includes a timeline, resources and the right level of specificity. Some plans need to be more detailed than others. Focus means knowing our roles and responsibilities, as well as knowing how to get back on track when (not if) we get distracted by whatever bright, shiny object comes along.
Project management alone doesn’t guarantee you’ll reach your goals and achieve your initiatives. If you talk to a project manager in any industry, they all say "on time, on budget, in scope." Hit all three, and the project was a success. Only the masters of their trade ask whether it was a good experience for the team, and only those at the doctorate level ask whether they achieved the business objective they set out to achieve. This is important, because too often, the project becomes the goal. For example, let's say a business wants to increase sales, so they get sales training. It's on time, on budget and in scope, so they hail the project as a success. However, sales training wasn't the goal — no business has sales training for its own sake. Increasing sales was the goal.
“I define success, real success, as getting what you want because of what you did," said John. "If it's not because of what you did, it’s just lucky and I don’t consider that success. So real success is getting what you want because of what you did.”
Project Management and Change Management
Change management is not as well known as project management, but it has its own set of best practices:
We agree on the goal, and have individual motivation and commitment to see that goal through.
- Good communication
Communication is clear, consistent, regular and repetitive. We don't say something once and expect everybody to get it.
- Why What
We have to share why we're doing what we're doing. We need the why not only to align our team, but to provide the motivation to get that alignment.
Choosing the Right Approach for Your Business
Whether you leverage sequential or agile in your strategic planning, it helps to understand the four foundational elements your strategic planning will need in order to be effective. These are the Four Foundational Elements of Success:
- Plan: The right amount of structure
- Focus: Clarity and accountability
- Alignment: Agreement, motivation, commitment
- Communication: Intentionally share the why
Communication is the element that holds all of the pieces together. You can’t have alignment without clear communication, you can't have focus with out clear communication, you can’t execute against a plan without communication. You can have a plan, but it will be nothing more than a document in a drawer somewhere if you don't communicate that plan effectively. This is true whether you opt for a sequential or an agile approach.
“I’m an agile guy," said Joseph. "Those four things are exactly the same when you are trying to be nimble. They have slightly different definitions and slightly different depth. So the depth of planning in an agile concept is different and happens in a different way and with different timing, but you still need good planning."
The Differences Between Sequential and Agile
In purely sequential planning, you lay a foundation, build the next piece of it, then the next piece and so on until you're done and can launch your product line/service offering/etc. You might go in phases, but ultimately you're taking large chunks of work that you, in the end, introduce to the market as a whole. A key piece to sequential is that each piece relies on the piece that came before it.
In agile, you deliver one piece at a time. You stand back, look at what customers want and rate these wants. Then you focus on developing just the highest-rated piece, taking it through design, testing, production and finally delivery to your customers. Then you listen and determine your next step based on customer feedback. If they want something different than what you had planned to deliver next, you pivot to provide what the customers say they want — which you can do, because you're releasing only one completed piece at a time. You deliver the highest ROI every time you release something to the customer.
The Application of Sequential and Agile in Strategic Planning
The strategic plan is the foundation of your execution in the day-to-day for your business. If you don't lay the foundation well, you’re not going to be successful as an organization. You'll end up going hither and yon without a focus. But the approach to laying that foundation in a sequential context vs. a more agile context is like the difference between laying the foundation for a house and building the foundation for an RV: They're both places people live, they both need similar things (bathrooms, water, a place to sleep, etc.), but fundamentally, you built each one differently and for different purposes.
To illustrate what this looks like in the real world, let's look at the examples of part work and artwork. Both are work, but we approach them in fundamentally different ways.
Part work is predictable. Its goal is to take different pieces and put them together, with no extra parts left over when you're done. Part work is predictable. It has a long change horizon; its accounting principles don’t change frequently. The outcome is clear, and the purpose is to deliver.
Artwork is the creation of something new. It's inherently unpredictable. The focus is discovery and learning. It's constantly changing because what you’re working on continually changes with your observation and reaction as you sense and respond to what you're creating. You know you need to go in a direction, but don't know how far or what the product will be when you're done. The outcome is ambiguous and the purpose is to discover.
Your company probably resides somewhere on the continuum between part work and artwork. So if sequential planning is the best mode for you, you may still want to adopt some aspects of agile and vice versa.
“I wouldn’t normally recommend that someone do sequential planning," said Joseph. "But John Kaminski's approach to sequential planning has room in it and accounts for the fact that things do change. And so his approach is much more nimble than a lot of strategic planning that I’ve seen done before. A lot of strategic planning I’ve seen done before winds up in a binder on a shelf and nobody looks at it.”
That's a big problem. Your plan has to live and breathe, otherwise, your plan stays on the shelf until you’re planning next year’s strategic planning. Is it any surprise so many people don't meet their objectives when they never revisit their plan?
Which Is the Right Approach for You?
Pivoting isn't something only startups and tech companies do; it's a concept that's also important in the mainstream. In 2020, we discovered nothing is predictable, including strategic planning. Many of us learned that we need to improve our ability to pivot. Every business needs to become more nimble, the question is how much more nimble?
To determine the most effective approach for your particular business, consider two axes: discovery and objective. (See figure below)
On the discovery axis, we have two extremes: You either have a known method or you need to discover a hitherto unknown one. If you know how long it will take to accomplish what you want to accomplish, have the materials list and are familiar with the techniques, you're closer to the 'known method' end of the axis.
On the objective axis, our two extremes are a clear objective and an unclear objective. Either you know what your outcome needs to be (e.g., you know what your customer wants) or it's ambiguous and you'll need to iterate, change and figure out what your customer wants.
Your business will, more than likely, fall somewhere between the extremes.
A Case for Sequential
Let's say you own a clothing business and want to bring your new fall line to market. You've done it before, so you have a general understanding of the process. You're closer to the known method on axis one. You also have a clear objective: a fall line of shirts, sweaters, pants and jackets. You're closer to the clear end of the objective axis. A more sequential makes sense in this scenario.
A Case for Agile
Now let's say you own a software company and are bringing a new software-as-a-service product to the market. You have a killer new idea to digitalize a usually arduous manual task. You know your product will need to allow for the easy capture of physical documents and digital signatures. What you don't know is the method you'll need to create these abilities or how else your customers might choose to use the tool. Your business is closer to the other end of each axis than our clothing company; a more agile approach makes sense in this scenario.
You see these elements in a lot of tech companies. Facebook was simple and morphed into something more complex. Amazon started selling books online long before AWS was born.
One final clue: If you're moving fast, you're probably more inherently agile. Even if you're doing fine, add some planning, bring in some structure, and you'll not only do better but you'll reach your objectives more quickly.
As a general rule, it takes time to build a plan, particularly the first time you do it. Once you've made the initial investment and built your plan, the following years get easier as you validate what you've already built.
The agile approach takes less time upfront and meetings tend to be shorter, but agile actually requires more time overall because of how it works in execution. The time is stretched out, you'll require more people and you’re working on it every week, adjusting as you go. Effective sequential planning, on the other hand, is front-loaded in terms of the time commitment and takes on a monthly cadence where your team comes together and tracks progress. You'll probably meet for a couple of days during the first month, a single day in the second month, a half day in the third and then 2-3 hours each month for the rest of the year.
It is absolutely worth it to learn one or both approaches to take your strategic planning from an event to a process, one where you adjust continuously as you make your way toward the goal. Why a process? Well, when you fly in an airplane, it may seem like you're flying in a straight line, but you're actually off course 90 percent of the time. You get to your destination because auto pilot is continually recorrecting. It's the same with executing a strategic plan — we spend a lot of time off course and need to correct regularly. So, if you feel like your strategic plan is zigzagging all over the place, you're right. It is. Keep going. Continue checking in and continue correcting your course so you end up where you set out to go in the first place.
About the Authors
John Kaminski, a serial entrepreneur with over 25 years' experience in strategic planning, sales and marketing, organizational culture and leadership development, started his career in sales with Xerox. He went on to work in the medical industry before starting his first company, which was twice named Best Company to Work For. John eventually sold to a public company and led a roll-up. He has shepherded dozens of companies through his strategic planning process.
Joseph Flahiff is an internationally recognized leadership and organizational agility expert at Whitewater Projects, Inc. He has worked with Fortune 50 and Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, startups and publicly traded firms. He is known to executives as a pragmatic, clear-minded and experienced adviser. Joseph is the author of "Being Agile in a Waterfall World: A practical guide for complex organizations." Joseph has been an agility leader, trainer and coach for more than 15 years, and has owned multiple businesses. He is a frequent expert podcast guest speaker as well as a contributing author to SearchCIO and numerous other sites.