Our Thinking Mon 30th March, 2020
Continuous Evolution, Part 1: An agile strategy for an unpredictable world
To evolve is to survive, and to plan is to succeed, but all too often, plans are static whilst the world is ever changing. In this four part series, we propose a tried and tested approach that introduces quarterly agility into your organisation without losing sight of your long term goals.
Iceberg! Right ahead!
“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” – Helmuth von Moltke the Elder
Here at the Equal Experts Strategic Advisory Practice, we recognise that stability is an illusion, and steady state is a temporary luxury. Any attempts to create and stick to long term plans are inevitably doomed as they fail to adapt to the world around them, or take account of the discoveries made once the journey has begun.
This doesn’t mean you can’t have long term goals; quite the opposite, but to assume you can decide today all the actions necessary to get there is folly. It is no more realistic than standing in Liverpool, pointing a ship at New York, setting its course, and hoping it will arrive at its destination unharmed with no intervention from the captain. Decisions have to be made, events adapted to, and courses changed.
Instead, you might think of strategy as being a sailing boat in high winds, crewed by a group of people with different but complementary skills, who have the autonomy to make adjustments quickly, in coordination with others, according to the conditions.
After all, sometimes there are icebergs.
Seasons come, seasons go
“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” – Albert Camus
Of course, we acknowledge that businesses need a plan, but the duration of such plans is shorter than you might think. Consider those 2020 vision documents produced by most organisations, some as long ago as 2015. We have seen very few of those plans that made it past the first year without becoming irrelevant, and not surprisingly, none included the impacts of a global pandemic followed by a recession.
In our experience, the most effective cadence for planning is quarterly. It fits well with company funding cycles, and is short enough to allow course corrections within the financial year. It also fits well with a more fundamental cycle that affects human motivation in a way that few people recognise. There are, of course, the recognised impacts of season – the January blues, flu season, holiday seasons and so on – but there is something more fundamental.
We humans work in seasons, measuring the end of one and the start of another. Traditionally, we had to align tasks to these seasons to ensure our crops were properly planted, tended and harvested, and our hunting behaviours adapted to the migratory patterns of animals. Even now, in our sanitised world, we see the seasons as natural start and end points, and yet at work our projects often continue on unbroken throughout the year. As the weeks turn into months, and the end seems far away, it can be hard for us to remain motivated, and productivity starts to fall. People lose focus.
We have found that moving to a quarterly cadence, where outcomes are achieved and teams move on to the next challenge every three months, can avoid this slump. A clear break every three months give teams a fresh boost and renewed focus. This doesn’t mean you have to abandon what you’re doing; just create a clear “cake and candles” moment to celebrate success. Then you can reset direction and go again based on what you’ve learned and what has changed in your business landscape.
Switching to a quarterly cadence means you are discovering all the time and are giving yourself the space to continuously adapt your plans. That’s why we follow an approach we call Continuous Evolution.
Ninety days to done
“Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.” – Abigail Adams
Breaking out of a tightly planned and predictable way of working can be very challenging. Our Continuous Evolution framework helps guide an organisation through the unknown, no matter what factors are driving the need to change, or the kind of transformation required. The aim is to build an agile and iterative strategy, in pursuit of the surest and quickest path to business value. Making well-planned interventions and measuring their impact is the key to creating the right mindset and high performance culture capable of rapidly delivering sustainable change.
Working in 90 day cycles, this three stage framework exists to:
- Shape – Establish the goals & objectives of the organisation, as well as the best ways to measure progress towards them (Objectives & Key Results)
- Plan – Visualise how time-bound activities are aligned to the strategic priorities of the organisation, indicating clusters and gaps (Roadmap Radar)
- Execute – Gather, prioritise and place ‘bets’ that are designed to realise business value through experimentation, maximising returns whilst minimising the exposure to risk (Bet Canvas)
At the end of each 90 day cycle, leadership should reflect on the progress achieved, and lessons learned. That allows the organisation to revise to their OKRs and Roadmap Radar as required, before deciding (a) which bets to evolve or stop; and (b) which new bets should be placed during the next cycle.
Stage 1: Shaping the vision
“The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
There’s a lot more to strategy than simply feeling your way through experimentation, and we have discussed this in previous blog posts. However, there’s also a lot more to strategy than thinking and talking – effective strategy arises from situational awareness and insight, and these can best be discovered through hands-on experience.
Not great fans of reinventing the wheel, we use OKRs (objective and key results) as the first step in the Continuous Delivery framework. However, we did strip that particular wheel back to its basics so that it could be easier for organisations to adopt and adapt it to their own needs. We find that OKRs provide a flexible, collaborative method that ensures activities are aligned to the strategy, across the organisation, whilst optimising the time spent on this activity.
The advantages of the OKR method are:
- Strategic priorities are discussed and agreed by leadership, including the establishment of long-term goals
- It provides assurance that the various aims of the organisation do not conflict with or contradict one another
- It ensures the goals and objectives of the organisation are clearly understood at all levels, through regular communication
This transparent and non-hierarchical approach to strategy helps deliver change, by creating a shared understanding of the organisation’s long-term goals, before aligning a set of measurable objectives. Progress towards each objective (and therefore goal) is measured by Key Results, with outcomes reported to the whole business in a regular cadence.
Stage 2: The Roadmap Radar
“Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht” – Anonymous
Literally translated, “Man plans, and God laughs”. It’s an old Yiddish adage and it carries a lot of hard learnt wisdom in its brevity. It sums up the fragility of detailed plans in the face of uncertainty, unpredictability and the unknown. But any venture involving more than a handful of people needs some form of plan if it is to avoid descending into chaos and conflict, and that’s why we’ve created a unique tool that carefully balances the need for direction with the importance of agility and empowerment.
The Equal Experts Roadmap Radar provides an intuitive view of the goals and objectives of the organisation, with initiatives plotted on the radar to indicate clusters and gaps in effort. It’s simplicity allows everything to be shown on a single picture, and the ease with which it can be changed encourages flexibility to changing circumstances.
The advantages of the Roadmap Radar are:
- It creates a portfolio of prioritised bets, to help the organisation decide where to go next, with confidence
- It aligns effort directly to the organisation’s strategic goals, providing teams with a greater sense of purpose and meaning
- Once misaligned activities are placed into the backlog, multi-disciplinary teams can be more effectively formed by bringing together the right, motivated people.
Once the goals and objectives of the organisation have been affirmed through the OKR process, efforts can be plotted as ‘bets’ against each objective, laid out to indicate a timeline for delivery (in this quarter, in the next quarter, etc). By visualising the balance of effort, any prioritisation decisions are radically simplified.
Although the Roadmap Radar shows four quarters, the only certainty is in the first of these. Everything beyond that is conjecture; sound conjecture based hopefully on best available knowledge, but conjecture nonetheless. Each sector represents an objective that can be pursued by a team, independently of the others. This reduces cross-team dependencies, allowing greater empowerment and increasing motivation.
Stage 3: The Bet Canvas
“You will have to experiment and try things out for yourself and you will not be sure of what you are doing. That’s all right, you are feeling your way into the thing.” – Emily Carr
The way we approach the “doing” part of the Continuous Evolution cycle is through the use of highly structured “bets”. These outline how experiments will be designed, how success will be measured, and the challenges and risks that will be faced. Bets are delivery focused, and are guided by continuous feedback loops.
The benefit of the “bet” approach:
- A bet is a specific idea whose value is tested methodically through experimentation, optimising the return of business value whilst minimising exposure to risk
- Each Bet Canvas includes a time-bound experiment, with a plan for how evidence of the impact will be gathered and analysed
- The progress of each bet can be reported regularly (at least weekly) and allows the riskiest assumptions or least well understood things to be tested quickly
The purpose of each bet is to (dis)prove a hypothesis through experimentation, which in turn links to an objective, which aligns to a strategic goal. The language of ‘bets’ is intentional – how much time, effort and resource – that could be spent elsewhere – are you willing to commit to the exploration of this idea? Some ideas require more investment to prove than others, and some are better understood and therefore require less validation. As a result, not all bets are equal.
The Bet Canvas ensures that each bet has a clear and rigorous structure, and can be displayed for all teams to see and add suggestions, comments, and questions. It also guarantees a consistency of approach, whilst also highlighting unknowns, which allows for easy and regular reporting of progress.
Rinse and Repeat
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” – Rumi
As bets conclude value is generated and lessons are learnt. With that increased knowledge and released value, the organisation can enter the next discovery cycle better informed and focused. How many times should an organisation repeat this process until it reaches steady state, and when does business as usual resume? The answer is, when the world stops changing, you can stop discovering, and until then, discovery IS the steady state.
In Part 2 we will discuss the OKR approach in more detail and give you a taste of how we facilitate OKR sessions to get the most out of them.
Part 1 – An agile strategy for an unpredictable world – (you’re here!)
Part 2 – Shaping the vision
Part 3 – The Roadmap Radar – When is a plan not a plan?
Part 4 – The Bet Canvas – Nothing ventured, nothing gained