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Agile Planning - A Metaphor

10 Jul 2012

| Author: Rob Smith

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Agile Planning - A Metaphor

Since first becoming an advocate of Agile in the late 90s, I’ve always been on the lookout for good metaphors for the approach to planning, and although somewhat trivial, I stumbled upon a decent one whilst on holiday last week.

My holiday consisted of travelling around France in a rather lovely campervan with my wife, spending time in a few places to relax, enjoy the scenery, luxuriate in the sunshine, and feast on the local fare and wine. Following lunch on the first full day, I sat in a deckchair overlooking the Med and decided to plan where we might go next.

With French map and sat nav in hand I looked at each of our preferred destinations, checked for campsite icons and estimated the travel times involved. After some time, I finally announced to my wife, “We can play it by ear”. “What”, she replied, “you’ve just spent two hours planning to tell me we can make it up as we go along?”

Her point was made in jest, but she had hit upon an important point. What I’d actually done was develop a strategy (Med → Provence → Midi-Pyrenees → Dordogne), remove the key uncertainties (is the travel time acceptable, do they have campsites), and provide a high-level plan (how long we might spend at each place).

What I hadn’t done was the bit I planned to “play by ear”. I hadn’t planned the exact locations or the campsites as this would have taken substantially longer to analyse and would have been subject to potentially high levels of change – I’m particularly selective about where I stay and need to experience a place first.

This level of planning was also ideal to effect governance. My wife, of course, needed to provide executive sign-off, but to do this she did not have to review a detailed plan (it didn’t exist). However, she could quickly review the information that was important (the strategy, the uncertainties and high-level plan). Also, as we executed the plan (and enjoyed the holiday) there was no requirement for continual change management as long as we adhered to the strategy, i.e. the absence of a detailed plan meant that location and campsite would not involve change – but a significant change such as new area (e.g. Loire) would require further executive approval.

This is exactly how Agile should work. Sufficient planning is required to remove uncertainties, provide a roadmap (forgive the pun) and milestones, and enable commitment to be made, but detailed planning is unnecessary and can be counter-productive (unless significant uncertainty exists). Change management and reporting should be at a strategic level and the project team should retain the flexibility to make non-strategic changes without the need for approval.

I was rather pleased with this as a metaphor and my wife also found it fascinating (she normally indicates profound interest by falling asleep in the sunshine). We also had a great holiday.

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Rob Smith

Joint founder of IndigoBlue in July 2002, Rob has over 20 years’ experience in IT, and in addition to leading the company he continues to provide strategic management consultancy to a number of clients.

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