Recently, some great folks from one of our prized customers joined us for our two days of Rally Annual Planning.This was exciting for us. We had never before invited customers into our annual planning. Choosing to bring these customers into our Boulder offices felt as though we were creating a new paradigm for how to plan effectively. That is, for our company and for our customers, we chose to create a community of transparent planning. Little did we know what an incredible impact it would have on all of us.

In this first of a three-part series of posts, I offer you a glimpse into how we set ourselves up for our annual planning this year in a very new way: throw out the traditional cookbook and “lean into” some untested waters with no recipes. Inviting customers as our guests was one part of our experiment. How we set ourselves up before, during and after their visit invited us to act as chefs not recipe followers in other ways as well.

Through this series, I invite you to learn how we worked in “the kitchen”, what we “fed” ourselves and our guests, and what they “fed” us in return. An unbelievable 5-course feast for how we set our Rally year in motion.

Throwing out the cookbook and acting like chefs

Throwing out the cookbook and acting like chefs for Agile planningTo set the stage a bit, let me give you a high-level view of the overall annual planning approach we formulated. Think about 5 iterations (not levels, iterations) of planning. In our chef metaphor, you can think about ways we acted as chefs be inviting a learning mode to our planning. We pulled a little from this recipe, updated other recipes, and then created brand new “dishes.” Anything was possible. How? We have experimented with our annual planning every year, always pushing ourselves to learn new ways of how to plan and steer. The result? Readiness to try new approaches through our new hunches and previous experiments.

Iteration 1 — create a high-level vision “star” to steer by

We kicked off the annual planning through an executive offsite as our first iteration. Here, a group of 12 people reflected on the year 2011 and looked into our 2012 through several lenses. A SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) brainstorm led to a matrix of strengths and opportunities across weaknesses and threats in affinity groups. This wall map helped us realize where we really needed to focus: specifically 5 possible major efforts. At Rally, we call these efforts “Mother Strategies” as defined in Pascal Dennis’s book “Getting the Right Things Done.” This was an example of where we took a recipe from the past and modified it for our iterative approach this year.

In this initial iteration, we also used a draft Corporate Strategy A3 as a reference.  The A3 created a clear, conscise picture of our Performance Gaps and Targets, Reflections, and Rationale (all of this on the left side of the A3.) The Mother Strategies a la Dennis then informed the right side “This Year’s Action Plan” of our A3. These Mother Strategies created a draft of ideas to bring back to Rally for reflection. They provided a compression of what the executive group saw as critically valuable to address in our upcoming fiscal year.

Iteration 2 – From executive visioning to departmental recommendations

The second iteration of our planning took the form of departmental annual retrospectives. We used an approach called an ORID (Objective, Reflective, Interpretive, Decisional) from “The Art of Focused Conversation.” Our facilitated ORIDs invite all insights from all employees. These brainstorm gatherings in each department brought a valuable narrative about the past, present and future perspectives. From each ORID, we learned about completed work, the current work in progress, planned work, specific annual metrics and then overall mood charts for the year for the department. We were quite intentional about how we coupled the executive visioning with the department-level ORIDs. Importantly, these two perspectives fed the annual planning next steps.

Preparations for iteration 3 take time and heart

As the actual annual planning meeting approached, we stepped up our work on the overview and details of how we’d guide the two days ofEscape Velocity by Geoffrey Moore used in Rally Software's Agile Planning planning. Part of the  preparation for this third iteration of planning included yet another chef play: required pre-reading for all 60 participants as part of the iteration: Escape Velocity by Geoffrey Moore. Why? We knew that we were going to be applying some fundamental language both from Geoff’s book and a recent webinar with Geoff hosted by Rally. Specifically, we invited new vision and planning language around Horizon 1, Horizon 2, and Horizon 3 business. (My colleague Zach Nies’s post gives a great overview of these Horizons.)  Pre-work was essential in order to hold this shared vocabulary in our brainstorms and dialogues.

In addition to the participants’ pre-work, a group of 3 facilitators (Tamara Nation, Laura Burke and I) as well as our executive sponsor, Ryan, had our pre-work as well:

  • create high-level views of the planning meeting across two days
  • provide an FAQ for our 60 Rally participants about the flow of the planning and what their participation would be: what to bring, when they would bring their information forward, what topics they’d be asked to challenge and investigate together
  • conduct empathy interviews with Rally participants about their hopes, their intentions around their roles, and their concerns about the planning, especially the 2-day meeting
  • set expectations with our John Deere guests about their role in the 2-day meeting
  • apply the overviews to steer how we created our detailed purposes, agendas, processes, roles, artifacts and timeboxes for the two days

Tamara, Laura, Ryan and I work together in this way to create an environment of clarity, safety, and information divergence. This is important. Our iteration 3 planning meeting ultimately seeks convergence on recommendations for subsequent iterations. You could say we were preparing the group to sit in the tug and pull necessary to reconcile the executive vision and departmental recommendations. Holding onto this ambiguity was important to feed our next step in planning.

Two iterations down, three to go

Stay tuned for the next installation of our annual planning series to learn more about iteration 3, the 2-day planning event of chef magic.

I’ll complete the series with a wrap up of iterations 4 and 5 where we set our annual plan in motion and the steering that began immediately thereafter.

Jean Tabaka is a crappy skier, an eclectic gluten-free chef, a frequent flyer on no particular airline, an author and Agile Fellow at Rally Software Development. You can follow Jean on Twitter at @jeantabaka

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