Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Experience Report: Blitz Planning Technique Used to Plan a Year of Scouts

I've written this report so people versed in blitz planning can review quickly and then move on to consider implications and wider applicability of the small adjustments to other scenarios.

For those who need more material on blitz planning basics and who are interested in how BSA suggests the planning be done, supplemental sections are there for you near the end.

Experience Report:

Figure 1

To accommodate this age group (age 11), brainstorming options was done beforehand.

To set up, I brought in two chalkboards to hold the menus of options in addition to a third chalkboard to represent the final calendar deliverable.

Options were posted on the board to make it easy for each scout to walk up and vote on their top 5 choices by placing a vote sticker on the option.

What you see is four menus of options: core scout activities, elective interest activities, service projects and camping locations.

When voting was complete, a subset of options was decorated with vote stickers. So, it was clear which options should be included in the plan. Counting it up, hundreds of decisions are represented by the various options, the votes, the slotting and the support decisions.

Figure 2

In Figure 2, options were transferred to a simplified calendar. Activities for this troop happen on a particular day of the week, or on particular weekends. So, the calendar was paired down to a set of relevant dates. There was room to place an activity in a date slot. Later, an alternate activity was added as well.

Adults and volunteers were given white sticky notes to place their name on. They walked up to the calendar and picked dates that they will help plan, execute and support. Some dates remained unsupported, but we had a clear view of the gaps that would need to be filled later.

The meeting took less than an hour. Any longer than an hour would have been a problem and would have required a special dispensation.

In short, I deem the experiment to be highly successful in outcome particularly on gaining awareness and engagement from the broader group.

Wider Applicability:
Part of what's novel here is the age range. It worked on 11-year-olds. So, the simplification of complex planning shines through.

It would be easy to miss this point, but this was subcommittee work - so this is relevant to the planning work done by subcommittees. Parents tended to see themselves as part of the wider set of stakeholders but wanted little to no part in the planning. That was to be done by a subcommittee of volunteer scout leaders and the scouts.

If all work to be done by an organization were done in general assembly, each decision would cost (effort time) x (expense of each member per time unit). That's usually too expensive in time and money. So, certain work is broken out to the subcommittee for efficiency. Yet what's often neglected is that the general assembly then needs to become briefed effectively on the subcommittee work. Not only that, but the engagement of the general assembly needs to be achieved in an environment of competing demands on attention. It's common for general awareness and engagement to suffer greatly. People underestimate the cost of the subsequent awareness and engagement.

So, in a non-trivial planning effort such as this, the magic comes from combining the virtues of general assembly work with subcommittee work. That means doing the subcommittee work in a short timeframe that can fit within a general assembly meeting - usually not possible with traditional planning techniques.

If you can pull that off, you get the awareness and engagement of the general assembly while knocking out the subcommittee work.

That's the magic I found in using the blitz planning technique here. I got hundreds of choice, priority, mapping and support decisions made very quickly in a general assembly environment where everyone was briefed and maximum engagement could be achieved. The visual nature of the technique boosted awareness and engagement.

The Official BSA Planning Approach (From My Perspective):
When someone asked me to plan the scouting activities, they were asking me to do something I didn't know how to do. So, I had to look up how the scouting organization advises the planning to be done. To me, it looked implausible. I asked my predecessors about it. They told me they found it so difficult, they would just do a piece of it quarterly.

See here.

Upon reading it, there's a veneer of rationality to it. It seems to have some steps. But one doesn't have to look too closely to see some fatal assumptions and flaws.

The advice, as I interpret it, is to hold a "planning conference." This is a long-drawn, fairly mythical-sounding meeting with all stakeholders where a ton of work gets done in the timeframe of a meeting that people are willing to attend.

Some prep work is done beforehand, to identify constraints and assumptions for calendar dates. In the meeting, the group must brainstorm ideas and hear the ideas of anyone with ideas. Next, these ideas must be prioritized. Then, concrete decisions need to be made about what to add to the calendar. The objective is to produce the key deliverable, which is a calendar full of activities.

I was incredulous that all this could happen in a single meeting with any level acceptable level of quality of outcome.

At age eleven, a 20-minute or so brainstorm session could yield you very few workable ideas. The very crux of the exercise is to get a high-quality menu of options to choose from. A single brainstorm session under the duress of a planning conference isn't going to work ten times out of ten, in my estimation.

Blitz planning to the rescue.

Brief on Blitz Planning:
Sofware Development requires a group to make a lot of shared decisions quickly under constraint.

Blitz Planning is a technique to do this. It's been in the repertoire for a while, yet I don't often hear much noise being made about it. I've been in several environments where nobody had heard of it. It might need to be rediscovered. It's been highlighted by Alistair Cockburn, among others.

In short, blitz planning starts off with rapid-fire brainstorming in a visual way. Blank cards and pens are handed out. On the cards are written pieces of something big-picture to be done or built by a group. The group goes to work identifying smaller pieces until they think 80% or so have been covered.

Next, on tables, the cards are arranged into a timeline and subdivided to represent things to be done in set blocks of time. So, information is added to the cards to represent estimations of effort required. Risk and value are estimated to aid prioritization.

What you end up with in short order is a sketch of a complex project which can then be refined and evaluated. The lack of inertia caused by staring at a blank canvas disappears.

I've seen it work well on software projects. So, I thought I'd try it on this volunteer assignment I took on to plan a year of scouting activities. This would help test the boundaries of the technique, as these scouts were 11 years old.

Preparation Phase:
I categorized activities into three groupings: core scout, elective interest, and camping/outings. I sent out three separate surveys to glean well-formed ideas for each category, two weeks apart.

So, for two weeks, the objective was to send out the questionnaire to each scout and get their parents to assist them with filling out the survey. Two weeks worked well because some people were unreachable for a week, but all was not lost. There was a lot of forgetting to overcome. Multiple follow-ups were required, along with quite a bit of priming not only for the scouts but for the parents as well. If I were to do it over again, time permitting, I'd even allocate three weeks for each category.

Approach to the Deliverable:
The deliverable is a calendar, filled out. Well, calendaring is tricky and fairly overwhelming. I didn't worry about the calendar of specific dates per se. I decided to decouple the time slots into a more abstract concept: un-calendared time slots. The goal would be to fill in time slots, that could then be swapped in or out, and be given an extra option for indoor-outdoor to account for weather issues.

Some tweaks I would do in hindsight:
1. The posts of adult support for each activity was pretty slim as seen in Fig. 2. I would prime the parents better to get them to the meeting. I would create a mitigation for those that would not be attending - something like "your name will be placed on 4-6 activities. If you would like a choice in which those are, you can choose to attend. If you can't support an activity you're assigned, you'll need to find an alternative stand-in to take your place."

2. One of the menus of options, service projects was weaker than the other menus. I would have taken an additional week to boost the quality of that menu. I took 2 weeks for each, and I couldn't have done that quicker because I needed several opportunities to follow up and coach the responses to surveys sent out to solicit good options.

Getting Value from the Yearly Planning Cycle

Key Takeaway: If you take nothing else away from what I write below, take away this Vimeo video of Don Reinertsen: Decentralizing Control: How Aligned Initiative Conquers Uncertainty

A while back, I wrote an article about the yearly planning cycle. I don't argue that the common top-down yearly planning cycle should be scrapped altogether. Yet there are some typical problems with it.

My top two issues as I wrote then are as follows:

1. Being top-down, the cycle can easily miss out on all the wisdom found in the trenches.

2. When leaders go on retreat and come back with directives that nobody's seen before, the education and engagement lift to get buy-in from everyone seems as unlikely and as expensive as possible. Surely there's a better way to achieve buy-in.

After I wrote that I re-read a section of Don Reinertsen's "Flow" book on the topic of planning. As he rehearses, in the military, planning is done to achieve alignment.

According to this strategy, it's understood that the plans will change. That doesn't negate the purpose of the planning. Once people are initially aligned, then they can make the necessary adjustments from there. They are empowered to make appropriate adjustments.

This has been tested in the field of battle. There's a strong argument for this strategy. I find it compelling. Yet I don't hear much talk about doing this in business.

To me, this is yet another case where great practices and ideas are already here, but just not distributed widely.

So, the takeaway for me is, if an org is doing the yearly planning cycle with the goal in mind to achieve alignment, then the game plan still needs to be understood across the organization, but it's not a problem if adjustments are made if they're done strategically.

If the goal in mind is to make a plan and then stick to it no matter what (pretty much), that's a heavier lift. Whatever org decides to do that should be prepared to spend more time and effort achieving awareness, buy-in, and engagement.

From my experiences in business, the buy-in and engagement are both the more difficult areas to get right and the most neglected. So, I'll have to talk more about that later.