Strategic Planning in an Agile World

I’ve often written about the importance of continuous planning at multiple levels, while also emphasizing the urgency of fostering business agility to meet dynamically changing needs.

I came across an HBR article by Alessandro Di Fiore, founder and CEO of the European Centre for Strategic Innovation (ECSI), titled “Planning Doesn’t Have to Be the Enemy of Agile” that, to me, captures the essence of the tension between strategic planning and team-based agility. More importantly, it offers examples of how to make the two seemingly opposite concepts work well together.

As Di Fiore says, “The logic of centralized long-term strategic planning (done once a year at a fixed time) is the antithesis of an organization redesigned around teams who define their own priorities and resources allocation on a weekly basis.”

To resolve this tension, he proposes that a new form of “Agile Planning” is needed that aligns top down strategic planning, bottom-up team-based decision-making, prioritization, and execution, and a mid-level process that helps bridge the two.

In effect, this blends the best of both worlds — where agile teams leverage qualitative data and judgement to aid in prioritization and resource allocation, while big data continues to flow in through the strategic planning process and Information Technology. The sweet spot is the right combination of human judgement and hard data.

Put another way, I think it’s safe to say that team judgment without data is blind, and relying on data alone is deaf. The corporate graveyards are full of companies that have done either or both.

When Corporate Strategy Meets Team Execution

The idea of blending top-down and bottom-up planning is consistent with other successful examples I’ve seen. The great author and cultural expert, Fons Trompenaars (Did the Pedestrian Die, 21 Leaders for the 21st Century, and others), once shared how Heineken learned this lesson the hard way.

As Trompenaars explains, Heineken released a TV ad where a woman was frantically rooting through her closet trying to find something to wear for a date. Then the doorbell rings. It’s her date, who throws her a leather jacket. The next scene shows them in a bar drinking Heineken with the slogan: “Beer as beer is meant to be.”

Well, in some countries, sales went down, not up. Upon research, Heineken learned why. Apparently, in those particular cultures, the message received was: “Only slobs drink Heineken.”


After than, Heineken changed their approach. The provided a top-down theme and general priorities (e.g., In the European region, portray Heineken as a casual, relaxing beer) and left it up to the local advertising departments within that region to come up with an ad that would work in their country. It worked like a charm.

They chose another theme for the Caribbean region (Portray Heineken as a metropolitan beer), with each island creating their own ads. Again, it work so well, that Heineken began winning all sorts of advertising awards. To this day, they continue to win advertising awards, with what I might call a hub-and-spoke planning model. 

It’s a similar concept to Agile Planning: Remain agile in terms of priorities, methods, and execution while providing corporate themes and strategies from the top. What Di Fiore details is the bridge between corporate planning and individual teams. I highly recommend reading his article.

Bottom line: When it comes to strategy execution, resource planning, and business agility, you CAN have your cake and eat it too.

Jerry Manas

Jerry Manas

Jerry is the bestselling author of The Resource Management and Capacity Planning Handbook, Napoleon on Project Management, and more. At PDWare, Jerry helps clients improve strategy execution through tools and processes that align people and work with organizational priorities. Connect with Jerry on Twitter and LinkedIn

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