Can Agile Thinking Create Outstanding Plans?

Planning exercises typically require intense baseline data collection, extensive community engagement, visioning, number crunching, analysis, modeling, forecasting, more analysis, tradeoffs, revisions to the baseline data collected at the onset
December 9, 2014, 12pm PST | Simon Lapointe
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Planning exercises typically require intense baseline data collection, extensive community engagement, visioning, number crunching, analysis, modeling, forecasting, more analysis, tradeoffs, revisions to the baseline data collected at the onset of the plan, tweaking to the visions, plan options, draft plan #1, draft plan #2, and on and on we go.

A couple of years ago, I was hired as part of a team to develop a plan for a community. The team expected the plan to take a year and a half to produce. We began collecting baseline data, gathering input on the vision. We surveyed the community, held kitchen table meetings and community open houses.

Working under the guidance of a steering committee, we held several meetings. My role as a senior planner and GIS analyst involved gathering data, making maps, analyzing patterns and providing land use advice. I made many maps. I mapped wildlife values, cultural values, and suitable areas for residential development, slope, bedrock, unique ecosystems, watersheds, and landforms.

I wrote reports. Many many reports. Eventually, I began mocking up some ideas for the future of the community and I began to create options. But two years passed and still no plan.

The team got bogged down. We got way too involved with data and forgot we were building a plan for people. We spent too much time updating the steering committee and preparing for meetings. The longer it took, the more new data sets kept surfacing. New players came and went which created a lot of redundancies. I spent a lot of time repeating the same story. Data sets went out of date. Poor communication with the community made it difficult to keep everyone in the loop.

I learned a lot from this experience. I learned that getting it right takes time. By working only on getting right, you end up losing something else that’s important – agility and speed.

I suspect that I’m not the only one dealing with this problem. In fact, I suspect that this obsession with “getting it right” early in the planning process prevents a lot of plans from being implemented quickly and effectively.

As a planner who has chosen the life of a startup entrepreneur to pursue opportunities in the tech world, I spend a great deal of time thinking about innovative ways to transform planning paradigms using technology and product development. I find myself constantly looking for innovative ways to steer my business and my planning practice to grow with traction.

Towards the end of this planning process I discovered the lean startup by Eric Ries. The lean startup model focuses on getting a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to the market, then receiving customer feedback to improve the product and pivot (take a new approach) if necessary. This process is often referred to ‘agile’ in contrast to the traditional model where a product is launched fully functional backed by extensive market research. Ries explains that startups cannot use traditional planning and management tools because their product and customers are unknown.

My own experience with the development cycle of Civicly (3Pikas’ online platform for community engagement) left me to believe that planning principles share some striking similarities with the lean startup model. I am more convinced than ever that those same principles could be extended to other discipline such as planning.

I started asking myself: What if the lean startup model could be extended to planning and not just programming and startups? What if planners converted to ‘agile’ planners?

Let’s take a look at ‘Agile’ thinking and how it can apply to planning.

What is Agile Programming?

Agile is a different way of managing software development lifecycle and teams. It grew out of people’s frustration with the traditional approaches to software development, which was clunky and cumbersome and took way too long to create innovations.

Agile programming is based on the following principles:

  1. Involving users;
  2. Empowering small teams to make decisions;
  3. Being fast and light;
  4. Developing small incremental releases;
  5. Making quick changes in small batches;
  6. Testing throughout the project lifecycle; and
  7. Collaborating between all stakeholders.

What if We Applied the Principles of Agile Programming to Planning?

Agile programming is a very exciting and invigorating approach to software development. Here’s how planners can effectively transform their own approaches to planning and create a process based on collaboration and visibility while providing a much richer and more rewarding experience for community working on a new plan.

Agile programming is all about being fast and light

Agile planning can also be fast and light, and based on rapid execution. By emphasizing on active user involvement in plans, small teams of planners, engineers and designers are empowered to make decisions quickly and work in “sprints” to build quick incremental releases that include just enough features to grab people’s attention. They focus on iterations and continuous feedback using the surveys, tactical engagement, the web, real-time data, online engagement tools, and social media.

Agile programming is all about small batches

Planners and community leaders can also focus on making quick changes and in small batches. A small improvement to a neighbourhood park, or tweaking a new neighbourhood sign can be done without extensive community consultation. Online engagement tools and social media networks allow you to test new ideas, which ensure that, over time, a plan is moving in a community-validated direction.

Agile programming is all about early feedback

Early feedback provides a validated way of seeing what works and what doesn’t. Two-way conversation with the community to get early feedback and reinforce priorities is possible. Getting the kind of broad and quick feedback early is practically when relying on “public open houses”, the traditional model of public consultation.

Feedback helps identify potential gaps and keep things on track. Areas for improvement are identified early giving engineers a hint for how to direct their energy. With this approach, there is no chance that a project will follow a wrong direction for very long.

Agile programming is all about testing

Testing ideas and concepts is tightly integrated within the planning lifecycle as well. It involves continuous planning, continuous testing, continuous integration, and other forms of continuous evolution of both the project and the plan. Test your ideas first by crowdsourcing them and see how people react.

With an online engagement platform and social media you can encourage your listeners to review ideas continuously and create an open dialogue. Using tactical engagement, you can engage with your community quickly and efficiently. And you’re getting a broad spectrum of feedback and input.

Lean, quick, and agile planning

We, as planners, need to put in place the tools that will allow us to be quick and light, and to test often. Technology offers some serious opportunities to advance planning to levels that will improve processes.

A lean plan with continuous integrations makes conversations much easier with decision-makers. It shows, concretely, why a planning team thinks the way they do about the direction they're taking with the plan.

Why build a deep plan if it doesn’t present the correct solution? Agility provides a framework to get real insight more quickly. Watch how people use the plan, take the findings back to the drawing table, iterate, and then do the same thing again and again, until slowly, over time, the plan begins to take shape.

All innovations happen with vision. It’s what happens next that’s critical. “Too many innovation teams engage in success theatre, selectively finding data that support their vision rather than exposing the elements of the vision to true experiments, or, even worse, staying in stealth mode to create a data-free zone for unlimited “experimentation” that is devoid of customer feedback or external accountability of any kind.” Lean startup (p.278) 

Although some planning projects suit agility more than others, the collaboration and visibility can provide a much richer and more rewarding experience for communities to develop great plans.

Over to you

Are there any tools, tactics or innovative techniques that you already use to create lean and fast plans?

I would be hear how to gain speed and agility. Feel free to share your best tips in the comment or on Twitter @simolapointe. Let me know what works for you and what doesn’t. Thanks. 

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Published on Tuesday, December 9, 2014 in Civicly
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