Strategic Cadence

Sep 25, 2017

A few years back I took up cycling, after not having ridden a bike since I was in junior high school.  Boy have things changed! I learned a principle I had never heard of back when I rode my 3-speed Schwinn Tiger to school.  It’s called cadence.   A modern bike is designed with 11 or many more gears that allow the cyclist to maintain a regular pedaling pace, say 50 strokes a minute.  With a good bicycle that fits the kind of terrain you like to be on, and using the gears properly, you can go up the steepest hill or cruise down fast while keeping a consistent rhythm.  This is the best exercise for the heart and lungs, and allows you to travel much longer distances without exhaustion.

Cadence is a very important concept in the world of agility.  The pace of work is not sustainable when it alternates between confusion over what to do next and over-the-top heroic efforts to get the job done.  It’s either frustrating and boring on one hand, or exhausting on the other, and neither contributes to good flow, performance or morale.

In Japan, lean manufacturing organizations have a word for this problem, Muri. Muri is one of three main categories of waste, and is usually translated as “overburden.”  Overburden means placing people and machines under unnecessary stress by making unreasonable or conflicting demands of them.   Let’s focus on the people here.

In order to maximize the flow of work through an organization, we need to create a sustainable rhythm of business activity, that has two purposes.  One is to optimize the flow of information through the system to support well informed decisions.  The second is to create a pace that allows individuals and teams to focus on their work with a minimum of external distraction or noise.

For example, in agile software teams, the team meets with a customer (or proxy) and commits to a specific set of outcomes over a “sprint,” typically two weeks.  Then the customer leaves the team alone to do its work without interruption, waiting to evaluate the results at the end of the sprint and apply any necessary correction at that time.  The two week period is short enough to accommodate changes in customer requirements, yet long enough to allow the team to get something done.

The lean/agile principle of small batch sizes should be applied to all meetings.  Short, regularly scheduled meetings with a clear agenda maximize coordination and feedback and keep the team from getting off track.  When meetings are held irregularly, too many agenda items pile up to deal with, and it becomes difficult to schedule everyone.

In the agile enterprise cadence is the sequence of conversations that link top-level strategy with execution on the ground. There should be a regular cycle of conversations that enables the flow of ideas and information in all directions – top, down and sideways.  The exact rhythm will be different for every organization, but roughly speaking, day to day work is nested within a quarterly OKR (Objectives and Key Results) goal-setting cycle.  Quarterly OKRs fit into a longer cycle of annual planning and budgeting, within an 3-5 year cycle of long range strategic thinking.

In the past we’ve referred to this process of aligning goals as cascading.  I’ve been looking for a better word.  Why? In an agile organization, it’s important NOT to think of this as strictly a top-down, or waterfall, process. It’s just as important for strategic information and ideas to feed up, through the process of disciplined experimentation.  It’s a collective process of learning.  The Japanese strategy deployment practice called Hoshin Kanri uses the term catchball to describe the process for goal alignment.  As the name implies, catchball is a back and forth conversation.

Interestingly, in Hoshin Kanri, strategy is seen as an experiment.  Strategy deployment is not so much about execution as about validation. This is a very important distinction! The term execution assumes that the strategy is perfectly formulated and simply needs to be acted upon. The term validation implies that the whole organization is continuously learning and adapting.

In Hoshin Kanri, there are seven levels of experiments, ranging from long-term strategy down through shorter-term goals and on down to continuous improvement on the shop floor.  Between each level, there is communication and negotiation to build shared perspectives, healthy agreements and a good flow of emerging information.


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