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How to use GOST + SAFe to increase your company's agility

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Anthony Crain Delivery Manager, Agile Transformation, Cprime
 

Business agility promises to help create the mindset and behaviors you need to pivot quickly when disruption hits. Instead of making you fall behind, each disruption becomes a new pivot point that launches you ahead of your competition. At the same time, however, bad strategy can sink a company when it's time to act. That’s where the Goals Objectives Strategies Tactics (GOST) framework can help.

If you are looking to improve your strategy game, pick up a copy of Rich Horwath's Elevate: The Three Disciplines of Advanced Strategic Thinking, and read up on the GOST framework. Since adopting it, I have been far more effective at helping my clients learn the agile portfolio and formulate strategies that can drive their business and technical agility teams.

Of course, I've put my own spin on this, so you should check out the book if you want to understand Horwath's original ideas. Also, the GOST framework is just one part of his book.

Horwath's framework consists of goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics. Of the many metrics in the book, this one is key: Only 19% of 2,000 global executives surveyed said that their company had a distinct process for developing strategy. And of that 19%, more than two-thirds (67%) said they executed their approach poorly.

When combined with the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), GOST can boost your business's agility. Here's why, and how to use the two frameworks together effectively.

Understanding the GOST framework

Horwath describes how the GOST framework works by citing an exercise where he asks a room of leaders to define strategy and then give an example. He collects the answers and reads them out loud to see how many have the same definition of strategy. As expected, they are all over the place.

It is common for individuals within departments to feel that their organization does not provide them with clear strategies.

If your company does not have a framework for strategy, Horwath's GOST framework can help.

Horwath suggests that if you give each element of GOST a crisp definition, you can become a master of strategic thinking. Here are his original definitions, which I’ve tweaked a bit:

  • Goals: General targets that have direct business value.
  • Objectives: Specific targets that have direct business value. These adhere to SMART, a methodology for helping set goals that stands for "specific, measurable achievable, relevant, and time-bound."
  • Strategies: How you plan to allocate resources to achieve your goals and objectives.
  • Tactics: Specific, tangible actions your resources will execute. The results can be tangible.

With the GOST framework, you can usually categorize people's answers about strategies into one of these four buckets.

Figuring it out

Here are five examples of the answers Horwath got when he asked, "What are your current strategies?"

  • Become the global leader in our industry
  • Use innovation to build customer- centric solutions
  • Grow our audience
  • Strengthen our core business, execute new initiatives, and reduce costs
  • Increase sales by 25% in emerging markets via new growth opportunities

But are these really strategies, or are they goals, objectives, or tactics? To decide, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is this "strategy" of direct business value? If yes, it is a goal or objective; if no, it is a strategy or tactic.
  2. Does it have direct business value, and does it match SMART? If yes, it is an objective.
  3. Does it show me how I plan to use my resources? If so, it is a strategy.
  4. Does it show me how to use my resources, and can I touch what those resources will do? If so, then it is a tactic.

Find the missing pieces

Why does this matter? Who cares which quadrant it falls into?

Actually, the specific quadrant doesn't matter at all. What is important is that once you identify which of the four you have, you need to fill in the rest of the missing parts. If you do not have the other three items, your strategy, or whatever it is, will fail to provide any value.

If you have a strategy, ask what business goals and objectives this strategy will deliver when implemented. You are about to commit resources. But for what? And what are the tactics you need to get this done?

If you have a goal, ask what the steps are to get this solved.

The GOST framework ensures that you always focus on business value, short-term objectives, the smart allocation of resources, and clear tactics that you can use to pivot when things surprise you.

Using GOST and SAFe together

SAFe 5.0 has a robust portfolio layer, introduced in version 4.6. If you haven’t looked at SAFe recently, take a fresh look. The goals of this layer have improved to the point where it is now a huge asset for achieving a true lean agile portfolio.

Once you become "GOST-minded," you will find that you can apply the framework in many interesting ways. For SAFe specifically there are three that immediately jump to mind:

  • GOST can define SAFe strategic themes
  • GOST can implement SAFe's seven core competencies
  • GOST can clarify the epic-feature-story value-breakdown structure for business agility teams

1. Define strategic themes

The SAFe big picture shows that your portfolio vision and epics tie back to your enterprise strategy using strategic themes. But they don’t teach you how to define strategy. The GOST framework can fill that gap.

According to an article about SAFe, "Strategic themes are differentiating business objectives that connect a portfolio to the strategy of the enterprise. They influence portfolio strategy and provide business context for portfolio decision-making."

The SAFe definition for strategic themes intermingles Horwath's GOST keywords. In just the paragraph above, strategy and objective are used four different ways, including:

  1. "Strategic" themes
  2. Business "objectives"
  3. "Strategy" of the enterprise
  4. Portfolio "strategy"

The SAFe article quoted above also lists these strategic theme examples:

  • Appeal to a younger demographic (a video streaming service)
  • Put cloud and mobile first (a financial institution)
  • Implement product support for trading foreign securities (a securities company)
  • Lower warehouse costs (an online retailer)
  • Implement single sign-on across applications (independent software vendor)

If you apply the GOST approach to these examples, you will note that they are not, by the GOST definition, strategies. For example, "Appeal to a younger demographic" is a direct business value, but a general target. This lands it clearly as a goal in the GOST framework. But armed with this knowledge, you could now fill in the objectives, strategies, and tactics and make this goal actionable.

Also note that SAFe doesn’t call these "strategies." It calls them "strategic themes," so it may be that the SAFe creators didn't intend them to be actual strategies, or that they simply don't follow the GOST framework definitions.

2. Implement the seven core competencies

Applying GOST to the seven core competencies can bring you from a theoretical idea with dubious business value to a clear path from business value to tactical execution.

SAFe describes seven core competencies in the big picture, including team, technical agility, and continuous learning culture. You can use the GOST framework to turn these into business-valuable, actionable plans.

As before, the first step is to understand how to categorize these competencies. "Becoming a continuous learning culture" is not direct business value. Nor is it a specific target. That lands it cleanly in the strategy bucket.

Now you need to fill in the missing goals, objectives, and tactics: What business goal will becoming a continuous learning culture achieve? What objectives? And what tactics will you need to get there?

Applying the GOST framework to any of the seven core competencies in SAFe will get you the business buy-in and the tactical approach.

3. Clarify epics, features, and stories

Applying the GOST framework can help ensure that your epics, features, and stories are tied to business value, especially on your business agility teams that are using agile, but not to develop software.

For a business agility team, stories could be seen as tactics, features as strategies, and epics as objectives. All that's missing are the goals, but those could be your strategic themes.

And if you look at the examples of strategic themes discussed above, they look a lot more like GOST goals than strategies. This one is a bit of a stretch, but the model sort of works. And for business agility teams, this is a fun experiment to try.

Bottom line: Once you start using the GOST framework to understand strategy and execution, you start seeing it in unique and interesting ways. 

Keep the goal in mind

To recap, a strategy is a plan to use your resources to achieve a desired business outcome. The GOST framework gives a clear definition to previously ambiguous words: goal, objective, strategy, and tactic. These clear definitions allow you to tie tactics to business goals using objectives and strategies.

Going forward, when someone describes a "strategy" to you, figure out which GOST item they are really talking about. Then fill in the missing goal, objective, strategy, and tactic to turn the original statement into a set of tangible actions that you can use to accomplish a business goal.

You can use the GOST framework to give your business agility teams clear direction. It enhances the use of SAFe in many ways, but ultimately it ensures that your portfolio can align with your enterprise strategy, all the way down to clear tactics.

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