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Project Essentials: Rigor + Agility

Sure Fall in Love with Your Plan, Just Don’t Get Married to it!!

“Don’t fall in love with your plan…’ warns the grandfather of agile1.  We say: ‘Sure, fall in love with your plan, just don’t get married to it!!’  That is because when it comes to the success of complex and ambitious projects or initiatives rigor and agility are a winning combination.

Have You Fallen Out of Love with Planning?

For a long time, we were told that the manager’s role had 4 parts: Plan, Lead, Organize and Control.  However, since I did the MBA a lot has changed. The need for speed and agility means that the time available for planning and organization has fallen dramatically.  The need to act fast in response to market opportunities and threats, puts the emphasis on execution. 

Planning, never the most glamorous of management activities, has fallen out of fashion in this ‘just do it’ age.  But while the pendulum has swung in the direction of execution, plans and planning still have a crucial role to play in ensuring success. We call it ‘project rigor’ and while it may not be popular it is essential.

There is a price to be paid for a deficit of planning or rigor, with the following performance losses being all too common:

  • People pulling in different directions
  • Failure to set clear priorities
  • Failure to make trade-offs
  • Lack of focus and alignment
  • Proliferation of projects and initiatives
  • Failure to review progress – identify what is working and fix what is not
  • Failure to learn and adjust as required

It is time to fall back in love with the rigor of planning. 

Are You Falling in Love with Agile

‘Agility without Chaos’ – that was one of the top-selling management books of recent years2.  It’s popularity signalled the growing spread of agile from its software development origins to the executive suite. 

The book’s clever title made agile appealing to the traditionally conservative domain of management, even within bureaucratic organizations.  It tackled head on the number one concern or misconception regarding agility – that it represents the abandonment of essential management processes and controls, such as plans, approvals, reporting and even hierarchy. In short, that it means chaos – an organizational ‘free for all’.

The book delivered a ‘have your cake and eat it too’ message:

  • Keep the processes and structures that the organization has relied on for years to deliver consistent ‘business as usual’ performance with high levels of visibility, predictability, and control. 
  • Beyond business as usual, where greater speed and innovation are required, adopt a more agile approach. Examples include new products, customers, processes and so on. 

Imagine a dual operating system with bureaucratic efficiency and predictability at the core and speed, agility and innovation at the edges3.  A similar idea is that of Dual Transformation4.

Can You Combine Rigor & Agility?

The message that you can apply agile here and traditional methods there is certainly an appealing one. But, we go even further than this to suggest that it is not an either or choice of agile or rigorous and rigid, but a mix of the two that is necessary.

Rather than seeing agile and rigid as opposites, we see them as a winning combination.  Like salt and vinegar or sweet and sour they go well together.  You need both, although the exact mix will vary from situation to situation, depending on the level of complexity, innovation and so on. The question is:

Sometimes the ‘right mix’ could be three parts rigor to one part agile, but both are required.  Even the most agile project or work stream requires planning for example.  Maybe not a traditional plan, but a planning nonetheless5

One of the key messages is don’t just do it, plan do and review it!

Getting the balance right isn’t easy. Organizational processes, structures and strategies may be slow to change but even slower are organizational attitudes and mindsets. This is important because agility is arguably first and foremost about mindset6

Balancing agility and rigor means balancing bureaucracy and innovation, town down with bottom up, experimentation and playing it safe, perfectionism with getting it done and learning fast. But then again, you don’t need to get it right from the outset. In agile fashion, you can plan, do and review until you get the balance right.

In a truly agile enterprise, bureaucracy and innovation become partners. They create a system where both elements improve and where people in each camp collaborate to generate superior results.
Darrell Rigby, Sarah Elk, Steve Berez7

  1. Here is the full quote “Don’t fall in love with your plan. It’s almost certainly wrong. Only Plan What You Need To. Don’t try to project everything out years in advance.” “Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time” by Jeff Sutherland, J.J. Sutherland, Random House 2015. []
  2. The full title was ‘”Doing Agile Right: Transformation Without Chaos” by Darrell Rigby, Sarah Elk, Steve Berez, Harvard Business Review Press, 2020 []
  3. This idea is explored by John P. Kotter, Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World Hardcover, HBR Press, 2014. []
  4. ‘. Achieving that change requires following this formula: A + B + C = Δ Here’s how it breaks down. A = transformation A. Reposition today’s business to maximize its resilience. B = transformation B. Create a separate new growth engine. C = the capabilities link.’ from Scott D. Anthony, Clark G. Gilbert, Mark W. Johnson, “Dual Transformation: How to Reposition Today’s Business While Creating the Future”, HBR Press 2017. []
  5. Once planning was about creating a plan- a document. Today it is about a journey an ongoing dialog. Once planning an execution were separate, today they are one. Once rigid adherence to the plan was considered a virtue, today intelligent adaption of the plan is key. Today’s planning is a virtuous Plan Do Review cycle. See the full list of differences between planning in 2012 and 2020 []
  6. Those who brought use agile laid-out a set of principles rather than a detailed methodology (see The Agile Manifesto).  Perhaps that’s what makes it even more demanding—there is, after all, nothing more difficult to change than mindset! Take for example the second principle of Agile: ‘Welcome changing requirements, even late in development’.  Such a belief runs counter to the mindset in many organizations.  A key objective of the traditional project manager is to prevent ‘scope creep’. []
  7. “Doing Agile Right: Transformation Without Chaos” by Darrell Rigby, Sarah Elk, Steve Berez, Harvard Business Review Press, 2020 []

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