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The Art of Adaptive Planning

Lessons from the military are always popular in business circles, and it’s easy to see why. Top military units know that speed, discipline, crystal-clear communication and (above all) the ability to rapidly adapt plans in response to a crisis can make the difference between mission-accomplished, or disaster. 

“No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke wrote these words nearly 150 years ago, yet despite the incredible changes to the nature of warfare since then, this quote still holds true.

Fifty years before Moltke, Napoleon said something similar: “I have never had a plan of operations”. Translated into the world of 20th-century sport, one of Mike Tyson’s better quotes is “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face.”

You get the drift. Planning is important, but too much up-front planning is wasteful – we simply don’t know all of the answers at the beginning of the process. The answer? Adaptive planning – a way of working that gears your business to anticipate, adapt and respond to change. Many of us will be familiar with the agile methods that help us to plan in this way, but what else do leaders need to consider to enable adaptive planning to flourish?

Adaptive planning only works if teams are empowered to make decisions

What kind of Commander are you? Do you prefer to have the final say on every decision, or are you confident that your team can make their own decisions as they move forward with a project?

Some of my former colleagues from ThoughtWorks published a book in 2015 called The Lean EnterpriseIn it, they draw upon examples from the military to illustrate a business concept, describing how top military commanders teach their soldiers the art of “Mission Command” instead of “Command and Control”. Mission Command was established in part due to the inherently complex and ever-changing nature of military operations. It becomes clear then why Mission Command is finding its way into management circles in civilian life.

If soldiers are to possess the ability to make fast, high-quality decisions in the heat of battle, Commanders need to:

  • build cohesive teams with mutual trust
  • create shared understanding
  • provide clear intent.

With these principles in play, soldiers are then able to exercise “disciplined initiative” which gives them the autonomy to make decisions in the heat of battle.

Making the right decision at the right time

There’s a related military strategy called “Last Responsible Moment”, which means delaying a decision until as late as possible so that you possess enough information to make the best decision available to you. The “Moment” refers to the instant in which:

  • the cost of the delay of a decision surpasses the benefit of delay; and
  • a failure to take a decision eliminates an important alternative.

Again, leaders with a Command and Control approach or project teams strictly following an up-front plan have the potential to inhibit good decision-making. In a software delivery context, this can often result in building the wrong thing, or an inability to capitalise on a new market opportunity, or (at worst) failing much later than you needed to.

Bringing it together

To summarise, too much up-front planning and supporting a Command and Control culture are inhibitors to competing successfully in today’s digital economy. The alternative is to build empowered teams with a clear sense of purpose who – like a military unit facing a crisis on a mission – can employ adaptive planning to make perfectly timed decisions on the fly.

Interested in chatting more about how to shift to Adaptive Planning at your organisation? Visit Lexicon Digital

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