Shorter Plans Results in More Management Ease and Better Results

Many managers feel pressure to deliver finished work. They plan and replan—and ask the teams to plan and replan. They plan to be able to predict the future.

But there are several problems with all this planning:

  • These plans require prediction at all levels, from strategy to product to what the team delivers. That's a lot of pre-commitment to long roadmaps, large and long portfolios, and long backlogs.
  • The managers don't think they need to use data to replan frequently, to address what's happening.
  • The managers plan for the teams, not with the teams.

Worse, the managers don't deliver that finished work—the teams do.

Managers do that much planning because they worry about maintaining revenue. However, too often, the managers prevent product innovations or strategy changes because they planned so much.

Instead of all this planning, managers could commit an overarching goal to a team and explain when the management will revisit that goal. That overarching goal is one of the Modern Management principles and clarifies the “why” for the organization and team.

I'm not suggesting all plans are “bad.” I'm suggesting we need to rethink how we plan. First, let's discuss the reasons to plan.

Reasons Managers Plan

All planning can:

  • Surface assumptions
  • Assess risks
  • Show the teams and the organization the direction the managers want to take.

But those reasons for planning require that the managers focus on the direction first, and all those details second.

Too often, that's not what I see. Instead, I see the managers offer teams vague problems and then ask, “How long will this take?” Worse, because the managers are considering the problems, they tend to use “how much” instead of “how little” thinking. That's how we get to years of backlogs for products and the project portfolio.

Too often, managers want to do what I call “push-planning” and ask, “How much can we do in this time?” (Often a quarter. Worse when it's a year.)

Instead of large and long planning, we can use rolling wave planning for a short horizon. That short horizon allows us to replan frequently. Imagine replanning the project portfolio every month. That would require us to reduce the size of what we want from the projects and programs. We can still hold “all of it” in mind, but we commit to less.

With rolling wave planning, managers could use data to more easily surface assumptions, assess risks, and be explicit about the team's direction. That's because seeing the current data and near-term is much easier than trying to predict the long-term.

Does this sound a lot like what agile teams do? It does to me.

Rolling wave plans based on how-little thinking allows the managers to commit specific decisions to a team.

Managers Commit Three Decisions to Teams

I've already said that managers commit meaningful work to a team. That's the product. And, that's not enough if you want management ease.

Instead of all this upfront planning, what if the managers committed these things to the team:

  • A decision about the portfolio or backlog or whatever with the length of time the managers will maintain this decision. (Assuming no emergencies.)
  • The outcomes the managers want to see in this duration. (These outcomes are not specific features. Outcomes are problems to solve, knowledge to gain, to verify we are going in the right direction for now.)
  • When the managers expect to decide again.

Here's an example: Managers decide on the project portfolio for the next six weeks. And they tell the teams that they will use a four-week wave for their rolling wave planning. That means the teams can expect that:

  • No changes to the portfolio for the next four weeks. (With six weeks of planning, everyone has a look-ahead for two weeks after the initial commitment. But managers can change those two weeks.)
  • Managers will want to see demos in these four weeks to inform the next four weeks of portfolio planning. (Managers can explain which demos they expect to see, especially if the managers explain the experiments they want. Teams can push back if the managers want to see way too much.)
  • If anything happens to change that decision-making, the managers will tell the teams.

Because the teams can see short-term stability from management, the teams can decide what to do in the next few weeks. (Especially if they measure their cycle time.) The teams can learn what's too much and what's about the right amount to plan for. But the teams know>when to expect the managers to decide, whether those are short- or long-term plans.

So, with rolling wave planning, managers can create smaller shorter-term plans. That helps with management ease, but it's not quite enough. The next post will be about flow.

The Series

Managers can create more ease in their work by exposing their Important and Urgent decisions. They can assess their cycle time, and manage which decisions to start and finish when. For periodic decisions, see if you can address fewer decisions more often. (I recommended rolling wave planning.) And measure your cycle time to understand your decisions.

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