Organizational Agility: Balancing Planning and Adaptability

You cannot plan projects perfectly; the plan will be out of date by the time the ink dries!  At the same time, you would never think about moving ahead on a project without some planning.  Add to this the reality that, in today’s economy, speed is the dominant winning factor. How much planning should we do?  When do we do the planning? How can we ensure that a project delivers what is intended? This article explores answers to these questions about how to balance planning and adaptability to get a better project and organizational results.

This is the fourth of a series of four articles on the subject of organizational agility, where we explore key distinctions of agility at the organizational level.  This article, Part 4 in the series, “Balancing Planning and Adaptability”, dives deeper into the benefits and shortcomings of planning, where an adaptive approach can help optimize planning effectiveness.  Part 1, “Agile Instincts and Mindset”, looks at the foundational nature of agile as compared to other approaches that people and organizations adopt. Part 2, “Team vs Organization Perspective,” looks more closely at the distinct perspectives on agile at different levels within the organization.  Part 3, “Adaptability vs Predictability,” considers the management friction between the two forces of adapting and predicting.  

Planning old-style

Planning has traditionally involved thinking through every detail of a project from start to finish.  This worked for a time when it was applied to large projects that had highly predictable and repeatable tasks.  However, over time, predictability became difficult, and too many tasks had never been done before, at least not in the same way.

Old-style planning is still associated with the waterfall method.  Using waterfall, each phase of a project needs to be done before the next stage starts.  In addition, nearly all of the planning is done upfront, before any work is started. With decreasing predictability and repeatability of tasks, this method ignores the learning that takes place when executing tasks.  This learning can greatly benefit future tasks – whether by changing when they are done, eliminating them, replacing them, and modifying them based on what was learned.

Planning new-style

New-style planning is more adaptable – and agile.  It leverages learning by incorporating minimal planning at each step – but planning and re-planning at each step based on new accumulated knowledge.

It is well-known that we can predict and plan for the near term.  We can plan exceedingly well for a day or a week. We can plan fairly well for a month, but some changes will surely influence what we achieve.  Planning quarterly becomes a little murkier, planning for a year even more so, and planning for multiple years becomes very murky.

Planning for all of these durations can often still be a good practice – because it puts us through a thought process.  The old adage “you won’t get there if you don’t know where you are going” is still true. However, there are better ways of getting there – more adaptable and agile ways.

The key in new-style planning is the plan early and often…and to execute early and often.  The typical rule is to plan only enough to get into action, and no more. Identify what you know…and more importantly what you do not know…and take some actions that will reveal more information that will help in your next planning cycle.

Organizational agility is built on the idea that change will surely happen, and that we must move forward in spite of it.  We need to incorporate adaptability into our planning.

This Post is Part of the Series: Organizational Agility

Here is a series of four articles that focus on the subject of agility and mindset:

  1. Agile Instincts and Mindset
  2. Team vs Organization Perspective
  3. Adaptability vs Predictability
  4. Balancing Planning and Adaptability