A Clear Vision is Essential for Agile Programme Management

Search the Lean-Agile literature and you’ll struggle to find much mention of vision. Agile is all about short planning horizons, releasing stuff early and often, and learning. And a vision doesn’t necessarily help with that.

My direction? Anywhere. Because one is always nearer by not keeping still

The quote is from Engleby by Sebastian Faulks (cited Good Reads) and pretty much sums up the Agile attitude. Movement is the key rather than the direction of movement. Most Agile initiatives (i.e. projects and product development) are simply about building high priority stuff now, so it is no wonder that the Lean-Agile methods are relatively silent about the future.

In contrast a programme is about organisation change and the vision helps define the future state and attract buy-in – it is a “Postcard from the future”. A clear vision is an essential mechanism for staying aligned with business strategy. Alignment is, of course, one of my three threads within Agile Programme Management. The vision should be stable; not static but broadly resistant to change. Despite Agilists desire to “Embrace Change” a radically changing vision suggests the programme is no longer aligned with strategy and hence raises the question of whether the programme should be shut down.

Vision = Postcard from the future

Vision is generally considered an essential part of organisational transformation. John Kotter, a big name in leading organisation change, has an 8-Step Process for Leading Change (Kotter, 1995). Three of Kotter’s eight steps mention the vision: Create the vision, Communicate the vision and Empower others to act on the vision. Probably because of the prominence within Kotter 8 steps “Vision” is also one of the nine governance themes within Managing Successful Programmes (MSP) (2011).

A nifty definition of vision is a ‘Postcard from the future’ (MSP, 2011, p. 54), i.e. it is a description of the organisation’s future. Hopefully a better future as a good vision enables buy-in, motivation and activity-alignment.

That is the thing, a vision is primarily a communication tool. The vision keeps the team on track. The only mention of vision in the Agile literature I’ve found is in the book recently published “Disciplined Agile Delivery” by Scott Ambler and Mark Lines (2012). They also give keeping the team on track as the purpose of a vision, particularly in a evolving context.

[The vision] can be used to help the team keep on track. One of the dangers of evolutionary (iterative and incremental) approaches to delivery is the gradual “death by 1000 requirements changes,” where the solution slowly morphs into something that nobody actually wants. This risk can be avoided by having an agreed-to vision (which may also evolve over time), by working closely with a wide range of stakeholders, and through the visibility provided by the regular production of a potentially consumable solution.

Ambler & Lines (2012), p. 135

What a good vision looks like

For Ambler and Lines (2012) the vision is quite a chunky thing, basically the business case. In contrast MSP has a minimalistic view of vision that quite appeals to me.

The kind of vision I like condenses the whole organisational change into a pithy statement. A good vision statement has to be future focussed, simple, short, memorable, compelling, flexible and verifiable (MSP, 2011). And it should avoid detail like target dates. The trouble with MSP is the example they give doesn’t really fulfil those criteria. Here is what MSP describes as a “simple vision statement for a higher education institution” (p. 191):

When this programme is completed we will be able to offer our students a greater range of higher education courses than our competitors, enhancing our reputation as the foremost school for language studies in the world. A student will be able to choose from traditional courses, as well as IT-support distance learning from anywhere in the globe, all leading to internationally recognized qualifications. Our students will also have the flexibility to progress through their chosen course at a speed to suit themselves.

You can take your vision to a higher level if you can ensure it is “made to stick”. In their book Made to Stick the Heath brothers (2007) look at why some ideas survive and others die. They propose that a sticky ideas follows the “SUCCES” pattern:

  • Simple — find the core of any idea
  • Unexpected — grab people’s attention by surprising them
  • Concrete — make sure an idea can be grasped and remembered later
  • Credible — give an idea believability
  • Emotional — help people see the importance of an idea
  • Stories — empower people to use an idea through narrative

Nice categorisation but it is quite hard to achieve all of the SUCCES factors. Even if you can only get a few ticks on this list then you’ve probably improved your vision immensely.

Here is my stab at a vision for the same education institution mentioned above:

We help Shani study any language, from anywhere in the world, at any pace she chooses.

The Vision should be stable

Time for another literary quote: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there” (Lewis Carroll, cited Quotations). Turning that around the quote implies that if you know where you’re going then it matters which road you take. And in a transformational programme the vision is the destination.
Cartoon Map Folded
I, like other Agilists, “embrace change”. Changing scope and changing technical direction, all good. Changing the benefits realisation strategy of a programme, yup that can make sense too. Minor tweaks to the vision, also fine. But fundamentally changing a programme’s vision, now that could be a problem.

The vision is the essence of the programme. Changing that essence means we’re suddenly talking about a different thing, potentially a different programme with different stakeholders and intended to realise different benefits. So a major revision of the vision would need revisiting a lot of the foundations of the programme. And it is possible that the there is insufficient cost-benefit to do the revised programme.


Ambler, A. and Lines, M. (2012). Disciplined Agile Delivery: A Practitioner’s Guide to Agile Software Delivery in the Enterprise. IBM Press.

Best Management Practice. (2011). Managing Successful Programmes (MSP) [4th Ed.]. London: TSO.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2007). Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Random House.

Kotter, J. P. (1995, March-April). Leading Change: Why transformations efforts fail. Harvard Business Review