Agile Planning for Global Execution

Agile Planning for Global Execution

The Problem: Organizations expanding globally experience growing pains by not being able to adjust quick enough to foreign market conditions

Why it Happens: By failing to engage global insight into strategic planning processes and not having a dynamic planning process that can be flexible in a continually changing environment

The Solution: Implementing a cascade based strategic planning model that is grounded in the agile project management philosophy

Introduction to Expanding Globally

Launched in 2008, Groupon, skyrocketed into the world as a digital marketplace linking customers with local businesses enabling discounted transactions. Expanding from city to city in the United States, by 2010 they had a valuation of over a billion dollars and were operating in over 250 cities. This put forward the plans to expand into the next frontier, China. This region represented an incredible opportunity of linking a mass of local businesses with a magnitude of buyers. They had strong indicators of success to reach into the market with a sound business model, cash on hand, foreign market experience, and a population known for searching for the best deal. Groupon opted to drive this initiative through western based MBAs instead of local talent and stalled immediately into the initiative. While most expansions will run into growth speed bumps, Groupon faced greater issues as they attempted to manage the transition from afar without understanding the local preferences and purchasing habits. Compounding this issue was an inability to link corporate strategy and tactics to local realities. Within seven months, Groupon had lost over $47 million dollars and only pulled in $2 million in revenue, making the situation worse, local companies had been able to replicate the Groupon model and execute it with greater success.

The world economy has become more interconnected as well as shown an increase in the number of global organizations that are currently operating across foreign boundaries. That added complexity has created issues with aligning operational goals between domestic and foreign headquarters creating a significant gap between expectations and performance. Research on emerging markets speculates organizational defeat if a global company does not establish strategies for incorporating local infrastructures into their value chain process or having a connected link to the corporate headquarters. One area where a number of organizations have failed during expansions into emerging markets is the assumption that they can conduct operations in the same manner that they do domestically dismissing the belief that there is a cultural intelligence needed to bridge the expectations of organizational goals with foreign business cultures and practices.

Global markets represent potential and that potential leads many leaders to overlook the challenges. Logistically, foreign markets enhance the management complexity by incorporating time and proximity challenges. Cultural, behavioral, norms, and visions can vary significantly from the home market where success was originally gained. These differences get highlighted even more in marketplace differences, as Disney learned during their initial failure trying to scale into France. One key element to a global expansion in the ability to execute plans and having the agility to adjust quickly to the new realities of the move. There has been a great deal of research that has been completed on strategic planning, global leadership, and agile planning. In that research though, there is a gap between how those three areas intersect. Most notable is the lack of research on the agile planning methodology on a macro or global scale. The intersection between these three attributes is the ability to engage remote workers into strategic planning thus ensuring an aligned execution of strategy.

History of Globalization

A common misconception about globalization is that it is a relatively new phenomenon, when in fact globalization has been around since the ancient Greeks and increased during the Roman Empire that led to the Silk Road. Connecting China to Rome, people were able to exchange unique metals, food, tools, and of course silk. This also started the trade of languages, cultures, philosophies, and science across the world. This model continued to expand, prodded on by the rise of the Medici Family’s banking and trade acumen to further facilitate trade. With the rise of status and wealth, a premium was placed on exploration later leading to the Columbus discovery of the Americas. This continued into today’s fluent marketplaces where corporations aim to transcend nationalities to consider themselves as world providers.

Being a global provider or expanding into a world merchant, new challenges arise that can sink the initiative if handled haphazardly. Pertinent to expansion is the application of global leaders that can not only guide the transition but can culturally adapt themselves and the business to the new market. As old as globalization is, it is shocking to realize how underrepresented the study of global leadership is. Pioneers in the study, Joyce Osland, Allan Bird, and Mark Mendenhall, have outlined the framework of the global leadership model that identify the core competencies around business acumen, relationship building and managing themselves. Revolving throughout all of these knowledge areas is the ability of a leader to be comfortable in an ambiguous environment and to expertly guide people through highly complex situations.

Advances in transportation and communication have greatly exposed businesses to growth opportunities throughout the world yet the expansion has been so quick that the development of capable global leaders has lagged. With these opportunities come complex challenges which have found that thirty percent of United States corporations believe that they have failed to capitalize on those opportunities because they do not believe that they have enough capable managers to execute those global strategies. McKinsey surveyed over five-hundred executives on human capital priorities and found that two-thirds identified leadership development on a global scale was their number one priority. Numerous organizations are proactively addressing these gaps by diversifying their senior leadership teams, emphasizing values over policy, deemphasizing hierarchy over organizational flattening, and expanding leadership development outside of the domestic headquarters.

If leadership is challenging, then global leadership is perplexing. Studies have found that there were a multiple of criteria that makes global leadership so difficult beginning with communications. While communication is difficult enough between two homogeneous people, when you incorporate a large number of interacting variables from language and context to ambiguity and cultural perspectives, that minute alterations can enable disproportionate effects of complexity. Coupled with technological advances, generational shifts that violate previously held taboos, and an informational overload paired with a continual flux of organizational change, global leadership is becoming one of the most complex sciences that is affecting corporate growth.

Coupled with global leadership, is managing in a remote or virtual environment. During the previous twenty years, the world has seen an exponential growth in the location diversity of organizations. This is the employee telecommuting from their home location using technological advances to work from anywhere, the manufacturing of products in a different country to lower product costs, and the expansion of remote teams attempting to penetrate new markets trying to turn a domestic company into a global one. While this has changed the dynamic of the work environment and how work gets accomplished, it does not change the focus from work needing to get accomplished. This spatial separation of virtual teams and telecommuting combined with global work environments create a number of challenges to include alignment of priorities, accountability of goal accomplishment, and team cohesion. There are two key factors when evaluating remote or virtual positions that are shifting from a focus on time to a focus on results. The second key is the recognition that remote employees and teams need additional leadership time, support, and attention based on their lack of availability.

Any organization that is in this predicament of being spread apart is dependent upon alignment to achieve any level of future success. Using alignment in a broad sense, but if that company is in Asia, Europe, Africa, or the Americas, every team member must understand the vision and be actively working towards the same goals, metrics, and budgets. This includes how operations are executed, how support is elicited, and how the regions support each other.

Underlying Issue

Misfiring on a global expansion can spell the death of a company. Take Borders example of not investing in an e-commerce platform and digital readers because they were failing in an attempted overseas expansion. Being able to successfully expand onto global shores is the jackpot for every company, but specific considerations must be accounted for to ensure that the beachhead is successful and not just a temporary landing.

The first challenge is being able to engage the remote team in the day to day operations. Typically, there are significant time and distance issues with a remote team, where many times their workday is ending the same time the home office is just starting which leads to decreased leadership attention that foreign leaders receive. Due to time zone challenges, remote leaders often become ignored out of convenience and proximity. This is the opposite of desired intentions as remote leaders have a greater need to communicate with their leadership to maintain strategic alignment and to fully communicate the unique roadblocks and difficulties a foreign culture can create that slows progress. Lastly, a lack of frequent and routine communication between domestic and global bodies creates the opportunity for the remote employee to feel stranded and disassociated from their organization. This disassociation holds true for the homebody as they will be missing the cultural exposure and link to those markets unless they are engaged with their foreign correspondent.

Secondly, organizations are predisposed to practice parochial strategic planning. While the negative impact of having a single perspective for domestic strategies may be overcome, having a singular outlook for a global strategy can prove to be fatal for an organization. Routinely global field offices are forced to align to the home country’s strategy versus the field office helping to shape the organizational strategy to the conditions of their global markets. This creates the opportunity for potential misfortune by lacking the cultural cognizance to understand how strategies will be received in an emerging market. This one-way communication can also lead to the inability to recognize new opportunities that can be exploited and new innovative ways that value can be created.

Lastly, the maintenance of planning processes does not enable flexibility and does not foster a dynamic work environment. With a creation process that doesn’t necessarily consider the realities of foreign markets, it also doesn’t typically involve a process to alter and change strategies following the implementation. With such significant potential differences between cultures, ideally, an organization would want to match the cultural energy that is experienced and to continually mold their strategies to the cultures that they are participating in. This can create organizational misalignment and a misuse of resources that results in missed opportunities.

Focusing on a positive example, recall the Louis Vuitton expansion into Asia. China was in the beginnings of their economic growth and had an appetite for luxury and counterfeit products. While Louis Vuitton’s brand name was a consistent strong point, their ability to apply and adjust their expansion strategy made the move successful. Louis Vuitton took agile steps as they realized that the cultural and language nuances were stunting their success. Adjusting quickly to hire local experts to help them understand how the local search engine optimization (SEO) and social media worked in China their e-commerce platform was able to dominate the luxury industry.

Competitive Opportunities

While many issues are identified with expanding globally, the potential for a successful growth opportunity presents itself in the planning processes. Beginning with the opportunity for co-created strategic plans with global locations being partnered with the headquartered office to create strategies with a greater global perspective. This application would also address issues identified as being aligned between the two partners as they both have a vested interest. Two linked enhancements to this approach are incorporating a professional facilitator to guide this process to ensure a balance of strategy and idea generation. The associated enhancement is creating an open source mechanism within the organization to openly share feedback and ideas across boundaries with rapid speed.

The second prime opportunity for enhancing global operations is applying the agile project methodology. The iterative nature of the methodology can create an environment of repeatable, open communication that ensures alignment of priorities and accountability of accomplishments. This leads to real-time self-assessment of progress, issues, and opportunities that could position an organization with the flexibility to successfully adapt to emerging markets.

Lastly, is the opportunity for continued development of organizational global leaders. With expanding influence into foreign markets, the need presents itself for savvy leaders to conform to the cultures they are in and to learn how to capitalize on that gained knowledge. This can also be a cross-learning experience by developing foreign leaders into organizational global leaders further expanding the cultural depth of the organization. This greater organizational perspective, potentially increases the organization’s competitive advantage not only in its foreign environments but in domestic markets as well.

New Planning Framework

Proposed here is a planning process designed for global engagement. Starting with a workshop in which the organization defines its future vision and strategy to achieve that vision. Subsequently, each strategy is then broken down into the tactics that will achieve each strategy. The tactics are then plotted across a timeline at its projected completion date creating a milestone map of what goal will be accomplished during each month. This transitions into the next standalone event which is the monthly planning session which identifies the goals to be accomplished specifically during that month-long period. This is mirrored into the weekly planning session of what actions will be accomplished during that specific week. Interlaced into this process are periodic checkpoints throughout the year to manage progress which consist of quarterly self-assessments of progress and monthly, weekly, and daily accountability progress checks and resolution of issues.

First explaining the kickoff event of establishing a vision there are many best practices an organization can follow to include using an external facilitator to guide the process, incorporating a breadth of organizational members and stakeholders, as well as using the affinity diagram process to help stretch ideas while still being able to define the actions to accomplish those ideas. More importantly than best practices, is that the result is the ideal definition of what the organization will be in the future.

The strategic planning process takes place during two key points in the model, first during the initial planning session when identifying how to achieve the vision and secondarily during the quarterly self-assessment process when ensuring that the actions still align to the strategies and that the strategies are still capable in achieving the vision. These are the defined and actionable goals that are the tangible complement to a more loosely defined vision. Strategic goals also represent the major organizational milestones that garner the attention of the entire organization representing major shifts of focus and allocation of significant resources to achieve the goals.

The tactical planning process occurs during key points in the model with the first during the initial planning session and the creation of actionable goals that need to be accomplished to achieve an overall greater strategy. These tactics are again reviewed during the quarterly self-assessment and monthly planning sessions to ensure progress is being made and that they maintain their relevancy in achieving the overall vision. This step is a necessary step to systematically break down each goal into a modular piece that not only makes it easier to comprehend and communicate but additionally provides the capability to changing portions of the goal with greater ease when market conditions dictate needed changes.

Each monthly operational planning session identifies which tactical goals are to be accomplished over the course of the month. While the tactical planning session identified which goals would be accomplished in each month, the monthly planning session then establishes what actions and goals are to be accomplished during each week to ensure that the identified tactical goals are accomplished by the close of the month. Associated with the monthly planning sessions are the weekly planning and daily planning sessions which identity down to the level of what individuals will be completing over the span of a week and day respectively.

What is created above is a streamlined cascade of goals from a vision down to daily activities and how they align. While a standard planning process, the need for agility to adjust to normative changes is required to ensure flexibility can be incorporated into the process. The infusion of quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily checkpoints ensures that progressive movement is being made on goals and that accountability is intertwined into the process. This also elicits a continuous discussion on the relevancy of the goals and if they are having the desired effect on achieving the vision or if they need to be altered to provide the highest value. These sessions are not intended to be extensively planned and formal presentations that hide perspective and context but more simply of what was accomplished, what will be done during the next iteration, what are the roadblocks, issues, and risks that will be faced, and what higher level of help is needed. There is also the intent during these planning sessions for each team and member to close out each day, week, and month with a visible sense of accomplishment as it is clear as to what was accomplished. Lastly, these sessions have the intent to open the dialogue about continuous improvement amongst the participants where issues are raised with the expectation that participants and observers are available for consultation and assistance to ensure that progress does not stall.


This comprehensive planning model aims to achieve global and virtual alignment factoring in three specific elements to enable that alignment. The creation of a vision or better yet a shared vision through the participation of all of those impacted by the vision. This joint participation leads to a higher level of self-efficacy. This planning model also adheres to a consistent alignment of priorities that are transparent, continually validated, and defines how resources should be distributed. Lastly, the model enables a stream of communication vertically and horizontally across the organization which brings a tighter forming of physically separate team members into the group.

Team dynamics have the possibility to evolve in this model to different levels beginning with the team determining their work and the accountability that naturally occurs in that process. In the natural checkpoints of the process, individuals and teams will be unable to hide lack of progress nor will roadblocks to progress be hidden as it will be explicitly transparent what is holding back progress. Due to the open nature of this planning methodology, there will also be greater possibilities for integrating projects across historic functional work boundaries that are not typically crossed as well as creating unique partnerships and capitalizing on economies of scale. Additionally, there is an ability for team members and organizations to share workloads and to be able to provide immediate assistance due to the resonant nature of identifying constraints in an open forum.

This planning model most importantly creates the ability to act as a living organism that grows, alters, and evolves during the same intended time period. As markets change, as people leave and enter, so do visions, strategies, and goals. This iterative process enables the construct and foundation to make slight, medium, or significant adjustments in a short period of time while being able to communicate and elicit support across the organization. Lastly, significant to the team is the validation process that monitors goals and if they are having the desired effect or not.





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