How to Make Strategic Planning Agile

Historically, organizations have used rigid and time-boxed planning processes that often fall short in today’s world where market changes require a company to have flexibility and responsiveness. 3-year or 5-year plans, reviewed on a yearly basis, while helpful in nature, have unintended consequences. New ideas or projects often require additive resources or budget, and if not prioritized never see the light of day. Compounding this, decision-makers feel pressure to manage to their department budgets instead of dynamically reprioritizing and investing in projects that will bring net value to the organization. Consequently, the easiest projects to execute often get prioritized, which is not necessarily in the best interest to the company. How can you ensure these weaknesses are mitigated?

The answer is agile strategic planning. This approach is designed to be iterative and adaptive to changes and is therefore better suited to today’s companies. Agile plans are customer-centric and by-design consider how organizations deliver value to customers. This customer-centricity is at the core of Agile organizations, so much so that these organizations reorganize themselves by product to better serve the customer. Therefore, with agile strategic planning it is no longer about planning for the long term but rather planning for shorter time frames, allowing companies to easily make changes when needed and be responsive to meet customer needs.

This approach also helps organizations to ensure a lean portfolio management by revisiting the portfolio on a quarterly basis or at each program increment, instead of on a yearly basis, and make sure developments can be done in the next program increment.

To help plan agile strategic projects, enterprise architects need to be the voice of the customer in IT departments.

The voice of the customer can be missed when departments have no interaction with customers.

  • Agile development teams have poor visibility into what the customer really wants. Often times, this leads to reworks and features that don’t necessarily match current customer needs.
  • Even product owners may not have the full picture of what the organization is trying to achieve to delight its customers. User stories are meant to translate business needs into software developments, but they are not necessarily aligned to the real value expected to be delivered to customers.
  • At a strategic or portfolio level, business leaders tend to focus too much on an internal perspective. As a result, they prioritize initiatives based on costs and strategic objectives and often times these do not satisfy customer wants and needs.

By being at the intersection of the business and IT, enterprise architects develop customer journeys and value streams – so they know precisely how customers realize value from the company. This knowledge gives enterprise architects the ability to share the customers’ perspectives with Agile development teams, and hence “be the glue” to ensure product improvements meet customer needs.

Business capabilities are at the core of the enterprise architect’s tooling

To achieve this result, enterprise architecture uses a core component which are business capabilities. Business capabilities break down the business into building blocks that are laid out into business capability maps. If needed, business capabilities are also broken down into sub-capabilities. A business capability is really a capability of the enterprise, such as an “online delivery” for a restaurant or a “mortgage loan” for a bank.

Business capabilities are connected on one side to the business, and on the other side to operations.

  • On the operation side there are three main functions: 1) projects are used to execute the vision; 2) processes ensure products are well delivered to the customer; and 3) applications or technology assets are at the core of the products or services delivered to the customer.
  • On the business side there are also three main functions where capabilities connect to 1) business objectives; 2) value streams; and 3) customer journey maps.
Figure 1: Business capability is at the core of the enterprise architecture practice

Traditionally, business capabilities are only linked to business objectives, but in an Agile environment value streams and customer journey maps enable the architect to capture the customer perspective, and hence the product.

Value streams describe the different stages needed to deliver value to the customer. Each stage is enabled by business capabilities. Customer journey maps describe the various touchpoints that the customer follows during the buying cycle and the different routes people can take through the different channels (website, mobile apps, store, etc.). Each touchpoint is rated based on customer satisfaction. By linking each touchpoint to business capabilities, architects ensure that the desired customer experience is properly supported by the capabilities of the organization.

In summary, enterprise architects identify the business capabilities required to fulfill objectives, value streams and customer journey maps.

By prioritizing these capabilities, enterprise architects are able to plan IT projects that are aligned to the business.

This is precisely the next step where business capabilities are assessed based on their performance, criticality and complexity. This assessment will help enterprise architects and epic owners plan strategic initiatives that focus on the capabilities that will provide the most value.

When cascading the different requirements into epics, features to user stories through the various levels of a scaled agile framework (portfolio, solution, program, team), we can also imagine tying these requirements to business capabilities so that in some way developments are connected to business objectives and the desired customer experience.

Figure 2: Business capabilities link the customer experience to epics and user stories

The value of enterprise architects: connecting business needs to Agile developments

The role of the enterprise architect is key to connect business needs to Agile developments and deliver products that will delight customers. Defining guidelines and principles is no longer what the enterprise architect needs to focus on, but the value that will be delivered to the customer and the prioritization of business capabilities based on the desired customer experience. When organizations don’t have an enterprise architecture practice, they miss the necessary step back to make sure that the delivered product really matches what the customer wants.

Figure 3: Agile strategic planning is based on a more frequent reprioritization of projects based on customer needs

At the end of the day, the difference between strategic planning and agile strategic planning is the ability to reprioritize projects on a more frequent basis while keeping the customer in mind, and this is precisely what enterprise architects must bring to agile teams. EAs will make sure that the strategic objectives, the customer journeys, and the value streams are connected to agile developments through business capabilities. This will enable organizations to quickly adjust and reprioritize projects with a greater flexibility.