Strategic Planning from the Bottom Up
By Kaitlin Barrer
Last month, I participated in my team’s first strategic planning session. I’d been to strategic planning sessions before, but never one specific to an agile development team (I’m an agile software developer on a backend team for Rally Software). I’d like to share some things I learned from the experience, and how this could be useful for all teams within an engineering department.
According to Wikipedia, “Strategic planning is an organization’s process of defining its strategy, or direction, and making decisions on allocating its resources to pursue this strategy.” Businesses have been doing this since the sixties, and apparently everybody who goes to business school learns how to run them. Our product owner, Dan Green, ran strategic planning sessions for development teams at a previous company, and believed our team could benefit from the process. Going into the meeting, our intention was to have a better sense of our team identity — including where we’d come from — and determine where we wanted to go and why.
Our first session was a half-day. For a number of topics, we wrote on sticky notes how we thought our team related to the topic. One was Value: “What value does our team bring to the organization?” Our answers included that we “fix customer defects”, “act as a resource for backend development”, “provide a fast, robust search service for customers” etc.
Next, our team did our own SWOT analysis. That is, we examined strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats for our team itself. We learned that we all respect each other’s work ethics and abilities, but that we don’t celebrate our accomplishments nearly enough. We agreed that we have opportunities to share technical knowledge across the organization and to improve the backend service upon which our front-end teams rely, but we are threatened by attrition and the loss of key knowledge that comes with it.
Parts of the discussion were frustrating and depressing. Some were illuminating and invigorating. At the end of our three-hour time box we had discussed our thoughts on eleven topics.
Determining Our Team Mission and Vision
At the next two-hour strategic planning session, our goal was to come up with team mission and vision statements, vote on our top “Where to go” goals (another category we explored), and arrange them into a five-year plan.
A mission statement explains the team’s reason for existence, while the vision statement is the path forward to realize the mission. Typically, the mission is unchanging, whereas the vision could change depending on external factors (here is CA Technology’s mission). The mission of Rally is to help our customers achieve their best possible outcomes. Currently our vision is to implement this through software, but what if the market forces shifted and the most helpful thing we could do for our clients would be to administer at-work massage services? In that case, our vision would shift as well.
Why Do Strategic Planning?
So, the five year plan is the implementation of the vision, and thus is not set in stone. One of my biggest questions coming out of the session was, so what? We often don’t get to decide what we work on, so what’s the point of coming up with a five year plan? How does this process align us with the architecture and product team who prioritize our work?
What I learned was that ideally, every team would have a strategic planning session, especially product, architecture and engineering management. So every development team’s mission and vision would be working towards a common departmental mission. These goals would be revisited and changed, as needed. They would be visible both online and in offices, so there’d be no misconceptions about what everyone was trying to accomplish. We’d be aligned.
In addition to alignment, another benefit of strategic planning is onboarding new team members. If the team gets a new manager, that person immediately knows what the team’s strengths and weaknesses have been historically. If a new developer joins, they can get a sense of the team’s goals right away. Intrinsic to this concept is that the strategic planning process helps the team realize it’s identity. Having an identity can help individuals embrace what the team is trying to accomplish, or move on to another team if they don’t.
After two strategic planning sessions, my team is still trying to come up with its mission and vision. It turns out coming up with these statements is not as simple as we expected. Our team has changed a lot in the past eight months, and we learned that we aren’t all in agreement about what we want our focus and goals to be. Even though this has been a challenging process, it has been exciting to address our problems and imagine a new path forward — together.