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How to use Agile to Execute Strategy

12 April, 2017

“No battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy”, observed Helmuth von Moltke, a 19th century head of the Prussian army.

Accordingly, given the pace of change today, it makes no sense to invest so much time in medium and long-term Strategic Planning, only to see it wasted when things change.

What makes sense is to agree the strategic objectives, then execute strategy using the Agile project management method.

How the old traditional method of executing strategy unravelled

Originally (1960s) organizations used the old traditional project management method to execute strategy.  In practice, every five years or so, they produced a detailed five-year Strategic Plan that they executed over the following five-years.

Then the complexity of work and the pace of change increased.  Such that by the 90s organizations used an annual cycle for Strategic Planning.  They still produced five-year Strategic Plans, but they planned in less detail, and executed their strategies over periods of one-year.

Then the complexity of work and the pace of change increased again.  Such that even an annual cycle for Strategic Planning was not even close to frequent enough.  By the time organizations had produced their new plans, the plans had already lost their currency.

Consequently, although organizations still used short, medium and long-term strategic objectives, they reverted to planning and executing their strategies month-to-month, week-to-week in and around Board, Executive, Functional and Project meetings.

And the old traditional method of executing strategy was gone.


The word Agile means ‘able to move quickly and easily.’  It’s a word that sounds impressive when it’s said by leaders, and sounds like a ‘must be’ when it's sold by management consultants. But practically speaking, what does it mean?

Agile can be defined as an incremental and flexible project management method that typically involves a multi-disciplined team.  It involves planning and executing work in short phases – that last up to one month. 

The Agile project management method has developed and been defined over the same period the old traditional method of executing strategy has unravelled:

It was Dr Winston W Royce that in his 1970 paper titled ‘Managing the Development of Large Software Systems’ recommended moving away from the traditional ‘waterfall’ method of planning and executing work through successive phases performed by specialists:  


It was Professors Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka who in their 1986 HBR Article ‘The New New Product Development Game’ stated:

In today’s fast paced, fiercely competitive world of commercial new product development, speed and flexibility are essential.  Companies are increasingly realising that the old, sequential approach to developing new products simply won’t get the job done.  Instead companies in Japan and the United States are using a holistic method – as in rugby, the ball gets passed within the team as it moves as a unit up the field.

And it was 17 leaders of software related companies who in 2001 authored the ‘Manifesto for Agile Software Development’, stated:

"We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.  Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more “

Agile Strategy Execution

The increasing complexity of work and the pace of change today has already forced organizations to adopt Agile to execute strategy. For when organizations agree their strategic objectives, then plan and execute their work in and around Board, Executive, Functional and Project meetings, as they do today, they’re being Agile.

However, to make Agile work better for executing strategy today, we can ‘take a leaf from the software developer’s book’:

  • Be clear about team membership, who is and who is not in the team
  • Each team is led by a team member that co-ordinates the work of the others
  • The team is mindful of its short, medium and long term objectives
  • Work is planned and executed in short phases that can last up to one month (e.g. in and around monthly or weekly meetings)
  • Each team member knows what they must do for each phase
  • The team stays in touch and shares information during each phase
  • Each phase ends with a review of what has been achieved

Also, given most people work on several projects at one time and are not co-located, consider using collaborative tools to maintain the identity of the team and the direction, and to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the process.  

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