Building a strategy and two-headed monsters
Releasing Agility Masterclass on strategy
I hope you are doing safe and well.
In today's masterclass I'm going to cover building a strategy by identifying obstacles and building a plan.
I'm also going to introduce a friendly two-headed monster (with my face..sorry!) And, as promised in the last email, there is also a poem about strategy at the end of this email. (Enable images for this post to get the most from it).
A strategy is essential for Releasing Agility.
People must know what it is they are releasing agility towards and how the work they do contributes to this bright future.
In my field of work I see lots of strategies and most are extremely poor. They are often a wish codified into a document, or the leader’s personality documented in a PowerPoint.
An effective strategy has three things:
A clear painted picture of the future
An honest look at the current reality (or starting point)
A plan to bridge the gap between the two.
We’ve covered point 1 in the last masterclass, and we’ll cover points 2 and 3 in this email. Before that though, let’s talk about a two-headed monster (a friendly one….i.e. your company/team/department)
If monsters aren’t your thing, then here are some other two-headed animals.
The Two-Headed Monster
When I work with leaders and managers I describe their company/team/department as a friendly monster with two heads. Don’t worry - I’ve never had a leader not laugh at this.
One head is business goals: the very things that keep the business alive (think revenue, growth, cash, customer acquisition, market share). The other head is the system of work (think staff retention, behaviours, culture, communication, wellbeing etc).
Both heads often compete for energy, time and attention (and money). They sometimes work well with each other – and when they do, you’ve got it right. They require different things to eat (metaphorically). But ultimately they are both sustaining the same monster. They are both, ultimately, the business itself.
For example, if we focus entirely on getting our business goals at the expense of our people, the culture or the system of work, we will see our company culture distort. After all, it's entirely possible to get great business results with a rotten culture. Check out the business news for stories galore of this happening.
Equally, if we focus so much on engagement, or staff satisfaction, we may lose sight of making money and serving customers. There are plenty of companies that do this too, until they run out of money.
Instead, we're going to feed both and try and keep this tension in check. And when they work in harmony, each sustains the business. For example, retaining good people helps you get better results. Better results help to provide a better environment for people to work. You get the idea.
A good strategy has both elements.
We paint a picture of the future that sees us achieving our business goals (or better goals and results) whilst working in a system (culture, workplace etc) that enhances the lives of those who work in it.
I believe this is a symbiotic relationship, but a relationship that many companies struggle to get right. A good strategy incorporates this idea into the very fabric of it.
Agility is always released
Releasing Agility is nothing more than simply overcoming the obstacles and solving the problems that exist between where you are now and where you want to get to.
As so few leaders and managers provide a rich future painted picture (and instead often rely merely on articulating business results as the future and ignoring the system of work), we’re already in a good place with the painted picture from the last masterclass.
Many leaders and managers may create a painted picture of the future, but then don’t do the hard work of leaning into their current reality. In a sense, they are heading to a destination from a different starting point to their current reality.
It is hard to lean into your current reality and build a plan, so let’s start with the question I always ask once we'’ve imagined what a bright future may look like.
The question to start with
"If this bright future is so compelling, interesting and exciting, why are we not already there yet?".
After all, we want something better. A better system of work. Better business results. Better behaviours (culture) and a workplace that enhances the lives of all who work in it, whilst still serving customers and keeping the business alive. Who wouldn’t want that?
But why are we not already there yet?
What is stopping us achieving this tomorrow?
What is standing in our way?
What are we working on that is not adding value?
You can ask this question to yourself, to a small group of leaders and managers, or to a wider group.
You will get different answers from each audience, so my advice is to ask yourself in private, ask leaders and managers in a workshop, and broaden this to those doing the work in another workshop. This is the approach I typically take and there is a sample agenda/structure later in this email.
Different views and opinions of our current reality is essential. We want to start building our plan from what it is really like in your team/department or company. Not from what one person thinks, or a made up version of reality, but from a realistic current reality.
Remember though, the current reality was created by leaders and managers (and you may be one of those), so it’s often hard holding your hand up and owning some of the current obstacles. It takes self-reflection, so these sessions will rustle against egos and people may try to “save face”. Good facilitation is important. Sticking to facts is essential.
You need evidence, facts and data about what your current reality is really like.
Most managers and leaders don't get the truth through the communication chain, or they get a watered-down variation. Be cautious of this – and anything that lacks evidence or data should be taken away for further study.
From this question, and the studying that needs doing to prove what is raised, you should start to build up a robust set of actions that you need to take. You will see obstacles and problems listed – and you will start to build a map of your current reality. It may not be pretty or palatable but leaning into your current reality is essential.
Your wider team want to know you’re solving the right problems and that this isn’t just another pie in the sky initiative that is unachievable.
And with a painted future state and a list of current problems (your current reality), and a plan to overcome your problems, you have the three key ingredients that form a strategy.
How you run the sessions, or do the interviews, or dig into studying the work is very personal to you.
As you go through this exercise, and it's a very important exercise as this shows you how to Release Agility, you should always remember the tension between the two heads of the monster. Your strategy should always incorporate both aspects and the tension between the two needs managing.
Focus, energy, attention, time, money
Both heads need feeding and tending to for the friendly monster (your business) to sustain. But this is a tension that you will need to tease out and manage.
For example, when you have people diverted to fix systemic issues that are causing challenges in your current reality, they likely aren't working on direct-business-results work.
If people are busy shipping widgets but not overcoming any of the red tape or systemic problems (and instead working around, avoiding or banging their head against them), then you are feeding only one head of the monster.
Things will never improve if people don’t have the focus, energy, attention, time and money to solve them.
It is a hard balancing act but if you’ve highlighted a brighter future and you want better business results with a better system of work, this balancing act needs careful consideration.
The problems you have identified will allow you to move more smoothly and quickly towards your business goals, but you will have to divert people to work on solving them (including your own time, assuming you are a manager).
This tension is hard to manage and may explain why so many improvement, change and agile transformations fail: the tension becomes too great.
But with a clear painted picture, you will also ensure that only the problems on this path are solved.
You will have people overcoming issues that are preventing a bright future, rather than people adopting off-the-shelf frameworks, or implementing different ways of working, or solving problems that have no tangible connection to moving smoothly and quickly towards your business goals. (We will cover typical business goals in future emails).
An example session
If we know what we want in the future, then what is stopping us from achieving this?
What obstacles stand between where we are now and where we need to get to?
What, if we removed it, would unlock more of this future?
What, if we started doing it, would unlock our potential further?
What is frustrating people?
What is slowing us down?
What is stopping people from doing their work?
Why are people circumventing process?
Here are some steps on how I do this activity. In fact, I ran one of these just the other day for a group of leaders that want better business results with a new system.
Step 1 - Gather the right people
There is no right or wrong approach here and you will need to use your judgement, but I would suggest you don't consult your whole team or department just yet.
Bring together managers or leaders or those who have accountability for delivery. Bring them together in a suitable room / call and set a clear agenda: digging into our obstacles.
Share the painted picture with them and ask them to come prepared. Ideally, it would be the same group of people who helped to paint the picture in the first place. And if you haven't yet communicated the painted picture to the wider team, then probably not a good idea to share it with them yet 😉
Anything goes in terms of obstacles. Big or small. Complex or simple.
We want people to bring their best insights into what is stopping them, or slowing them down, or making their lives hard at work.
What is currently preventing them from living and breathing the painted picture?
Step 2 - Frame this exercise with three views
View 1 is systemic problems to do with resources or processes.
Think governance, red-tape, long winded processes, chaotic policies and lack of resources (central teams, hardware etc)
View 2 is to do with people (hence my suggestion to include leaders and managers primarily).
People are often one of the main obstacles (not intentionally!) in achieving the painted picture so we should lean into this, carefully.
View 3 is measures and metrics.
What is being measured and what does the data tell us? What is not being measured and is that a problem?
View 1 is the easy one.
If you remember the example I used for the painted picture about moving from 14-month releases to weekly releases, you'll appreciate how big a leap this thinking was for the team.
View 1 about resources (not people) and processes is where we garnered deep insight and it was the easiest section.
A lack of servers for suitable work was a key issue.
A lack of automated processes, software tests and software builds were another.
Old red-tape that needed to be addressed.
Too many people being involved in various parts of the release cycle.
No fail back systems in the live system meaning faults brought the whole system down.
No management oversight regarding releases, resulting in managers blaming people for failures. etc.
When I run one of these sessions I get loads of insights into view 1.
People have often been banging their heads against these problems for years and typically have no restraint in airing them again. This time though, all of these are going to be listened to - and potentially addressed.
View 2 can be heated and should be well facilitated.
We'll do more on people in the future as there is a dedicated part of the model for dealing with people. Try to keep this high level during this session.
Do we have enough people?
Do we have too many people?
Are we top-heavy?
Do we have the right skills to embrace the potential changes needed?
Are we struggling to hire?
It may get personal here so use your judgement and close any specific "people problem" conversations.
View 3 is often the weakest section.
Most companies aren't measuring the right things so there is often little data to use to ascertain whether everything raised in 1 and 2 are valid. So, there may be a need to dig deeper into what comes out.
For example, people may complain that there aren't enough servers for software build environments or to do proper testing, but there is often little in the way of solid data to support it. Everyone knows it’s a problem but very few people will be measuring the impact of it.
Some people may say there are behavioural problems with certain people or teams, but I highly suspect this information will be anecdotal. There may be no behavioural feedback tracking or examples of poor behaviour being dealt with by HR or managers.
Some people will say there is a delay to decision making, which is likely true, but there may be little evidence that says how long decisions take, or where they get stuck, or how long certain people take at various stages in the process.
There will likely be lots of data around finances but very little around the process of work itself. Plenty of room for improvements.
Whenever you have subjective or anecdotal evidence, you have actions for your plan - i.e. start capturing data to prove the problems and know when they are solved!
Step 3 - Align the obstacles
If you have created a safe place to share, you will have LOADS of obstacles being listed, some with evidence, some requiring further clarity. You will have a combination of small tactical pieces like process X takes too long, and some much larger, such as not enough computer servers to do our work, or the finance model is restricting our ability to ship.
Affinity map similar topic areas together. For example, everything to do with people, everything to do with hardware resources, everything to do with process improvements, everything to do with communication etc.
You will start to see some patterns and groupings.
The next important aspect to do here is to see if there are any overarching problems, that if solved, could resolve many of the smaller issues. Is there a root cause that is underlying across all problems?
Please note though, that not all obstacles and problems listed can and should be solved. Some may simply need to be worked within. The finance model often comes up as a major blocker but sometimes, it is what it is, and we must work within it. Only you will know which ones can be nudged.
In a sense, is there a master problem or obstacle, that if removed, would wipe away many of the items raised?
I suspect there will be. Find it, highlight it and ensure that is something that makes it onto your plan.
No idea, insight or observation from your audience should be discounted. They are all valuable. Some of the insights will be symptoms of another problem, some will be problems and obstacles in themselves. Further digging is often required but there are now patterns to study and research.
This exercise is often very liberating for people. They get to air their challenges, just try to help them do this in a rational, logical and objective way. Try to push gripes and personal political challenges to the side and get to tangible objective observations of challenges.
Step 4 - Dig deep
This is where you start to form a plan.
In a sense, you want to look at your painted picture and ask whether overcoming the obstacles you have identified will help you move smoothly and quickly (Release Agility) towards your painted picture (Business Goals and Better System of work) or are they a distraction?
You should start to see the foundations of a plan. If you overcome the obstacles identified you will move closer to your painted picture. Now, some of these items may be months’ worth of work, sometimes years, but don't let that put you off.
It took us 2.5 years to go from 14 month to weekly releases. Most people don't want to hear this, but we were undoing years of processes, systems and behaviour whilst trying to grow and keep shipping at the same time.
But each month we got closer by overcoming the many obstacles we identified in a session like this one. And we knew we’d overcome them because we had measures (we will do a session on measures at some point also).
Of course, new obstacles will emerge but what we're trying to do here is identify our current reality and find the next logical obstacle(s) to overcome.
Only dig deep on those problems that stand between where you are now and the painted picture. I've mentioned before that all companies have more problems than can be realistically addressed. The trick then is to only solve and overcome the ones one your path.
With an exercise like this people will raise every problem - and we want them to do that. We now need to whittle them down and pull only the relevant obstacles into a plan.
Step 5 - Pull a basic plan together
By now you should be seeing some big-ticket items that need addressing. These will form one of the heads of your two headed monster: changes that need to be made WHILST you're still delivering your business results.
The business needs to keep making money. This is where most change programs fail, leaders over index on change at the expense of still achieving the very things that keep the business alive, or they don’t plan properly for both, meaning change is something that is bolted onto the top of people’s busy work lives. And when people have to choose between delivering what they are measured on, or implementing some improvements, they will likely choose the work.
You must find a way of managing the tension between the two. If you don't your system of work (including culture) will end up being whatever it will, because you're focusing too much on business results. If you focus too much on improving the system and behaviours you may find business results decline. I worked with a company that did just that - great place to work until they ran out of money.
The two headed monster will always have tension between each other for time, energy, attention and money. It's essential you have a plan for both of the monster's heads. Your strategy must deal with this.
What we're doing now is building the plan part of the strategy: bridging the gap between where you are now (your current reality) and where you want to get to (your painted picture).
The actions and obstacles you have identified, and how you believe you can overcome them, is the plan. You may not know how to overcome every problem, there may be more research required but you now know this is an obstacle or problem that needs to be addressed.
Someone must own the high-level plan and each part should have suitable owners and a team around them for support. Some of the obstacles identified may need mini plans. There may be a period where you need to break the work down further. Until you identify the problems and potential solutions, it’s impossible for me to say what that will look like.
When we moved from 14-months to weekly releases we had dedicated slack in our delivery for working on this improvement plan. We still achieved business results and an improved system of work alongside it.
We sometimes spun up small teams to deal with an obstacle. For example, we had no automated testing of the new code being checked in, so we spun up a team to build this, then diverted them back to business results work once we'd overcome this obstacle. Of course, with all improvements that are undertaken with a careful plan like we’ve covered above, we see increased business results due to it - this is releasing agility in action. In this case we saw fewer live issues which resulted in happier customers, fewer support calls and less customer churn (and weekends worked by the team).
We had no light-touch governance in place for releases, so we formed a micro team to solve this problem, then they went back to business results work when they had overcome this problem. Other items were simply weaved into a new way of doing something, or formed part of someone’s role, or we dropped a process, or we trained managers on how to manage better.
It's hard to say what actions you need to do, as your problems may be different to mine. But the essence is the same.
What is stopping you achieving this bright future and what do you need to do to overcome this problem or obstacle? Then find suitable people to get it done and some slack away from just delivering.
Your company may have lots of money, or very little, so “supporting” these change initiatives will depend a lot on this. Can you dedicate people to quickly overcoming obstacles, or hire people specifically to fix systemic issues (like test automation), or do you need to move more slowly and overcome them little by little?
If obstacles and problems are being overcome, you are Releasing Agility. You are moving more smoothly and quickly towards your business goals – and building a better system of work in the process. It just may take slightly longer than you wish.
Some problems will be easier to solve than others. Some will be cross functional (always harder - and we'll do some sessions on this at some point).
How you address these actions is up to you, but that tension between the two heads of the monster will need managing. Otherwise business results OR a better culture of work will consume your limited time, resources, people, money etc and it will get wobbly quickly.
The gap between where you are now and where you want to get to requires a plan and this plan then needs owning and bringing to life.
Your strategy should now have the three required core elements:
A painted picture where business goals are being met AND you have a new set of behaviours (culture) and supporting system of work.
A clear understanding and acknowledgement of where you currently are.
A plan to bridge the gap between now and the future.
If you get this right you have clarity, and clarity is what we all seek at work. Clarity over what we're trying to achieve, why we're doing it, what is stopping us, how we all play a part in this and how we'll grow as part of this challenge.
This strategy is not only useful for every day work (I'd argue essential) but it’s also a useful tool for recruiting.
Who wouldn't want to join a company that has a compelling vision, knows what it's trying to achieve and has honestly leant into what is stopping people from achieving this?
As we'll cover in future emails, don't try to action everything on your plan all at the same time.
If you change too much at once you may not know what worked and what did not. If you have no measures that measure the problem, you will also have no idea whether you have solved the problem.
And there will be problems and obstacles listed that are more important than others.
As we’ll cover in many of the future emails, it’s all about visualising this work, prioritising it and shipping it. This principle applies to the business value work we do as well as our strategic plans.
What is the single most valuable obstacle we can take on, or the biggest lever we can pull, to move closer to our painted picture?
What one thing could we do that will help us build a better business and release more business value?
What one obstacle could we overcome that gets rid of a thousand tiny problems?
Focus on that first. Then move on.
As with all strategies and plans though, you need to provide clarity to your team. You need owners. You need to come together to manage the plan and update it and make decisions. It needs running like a project. As we go through future emails we'll cover lots of different ways to do that.
A strategy also gives you great material for communicating to the team, recruiting people who want to help you achieve this and dealing with execs.
In lay person terms: We want to get to this destination; we are currently here; and this is what’s slowing us down or preventing us getting there; and this is how we’re going to move ahead.
I've made it sound simple. It's not. But it’s also not complex.
A good strategy should guide unified action to make things better and achieve our business goals. And that needs the components we’ve covered in the last two emails.
Remember the monster. It has two heads. One is your business results which must continue. The other is your system and culture of work, which needs a focus too. Understanding both allows you to manage this tension, feed each monster head and sustain a healthy company or team. Focussing too much on one, at the detriment of the other, will harm the monster.
In other words, we want to achieve our business results with a different (better) system. And this plan is how you're going to achieve it.
In our next few emails we’ll cover goals (Or OKRS if that’s your jam) and why they are not your strategy. After that we’ll dig into communicating strategies.
A strategy poem
Slow down, this ain’t no race.
Find your guiding data and find your place.
Paint the bright picture of what you really want.
Focus on the content and not the font.
Lean into the reality, turn and face.
Even if you created these problems in the first place.
Between the future and your reality is a gap that needs a plan.
Write down everything that needs doing - everything you can.
No matter what you write and what you plan to do.
Remember, your people need a plan too.
Be careful, it might come true.
Don’t plan for something you’re not prepared to do.
Now everything is in place it’s time to become Uber great
And learn how to share, learn how to communicate.
The acid test is that every person in your crew.
Knows exactly what their role is and what they need to do.
A strategy isn’t action, you need to get things done.
Habits, routines and discipline plus plenty of fun.
Imagine you’re pulling a really heavy cart.
Like minded at the front and to those at the back, give feedback from the start
The Trello Board used with clients - https://trello.com/b/Q3UZmWIW/cultivated-consulting
50% off the Cultivated Management Super Power Communication Workshop (please don't share widely!) - https://leanpub.com/c/communication-basics/c/ssIDaE6OTYb8
Access to the Personal Knowledge Management System in Nimbus Note (please don't share) - https://nimb.ws/nZMeDR
Business Agility Basics - https://cultivatedmanagement.com/business-agility-basics/
If anything doesn't work or you have a question you can find me here - firstname.lastname@example.org