4 min read

Get your Team to Focus on Making Progress with the 90/21/7 Method

Last week I wrote about applying the five principles of human-centered ways of working to teams. This week I’ll illustrate a simple yet very effective methodology that can help you put the principles into practice.

But please remember: it’s not about blindly applying the methodology. The principles are essential. The method should only ease putting them into practice!

I developed this when working with a leadership team during a transformation project.

On the one hand, the team wanted to practice agile ways of working and sprints. But, on the other hand, they, and other key stakeholders involved, kept asking for “visibility “at least for a couple of months out.

My position was that I, and nobody else for that matter, couldn’t exactly tell them how long it would take to get everybody on board, what activities would be required or what we were going to be doing in 3 months. We might hypothesize about it, but there wouldn’t be any certainty. Too many pieces were unknown. On top of this, the organization was constantly fire fighting (covid, floods, a production accident,…), and these emergencies would need all hands on deck. Thus not only keeping us from delivering everything planned in such a week but also requiring much re-planning thereafter. More time would be spent on planning than on doing actual work.

While I argued with them for a very long time about not wanting to give in to their request for longer-term planning, at some point, I accepted that the organization was not ready, and it was too much of a stretch to go from traditional project planning to only planning the next sprint. I also realized that sometimes a feeling of control, order, and predictability is essential. Maybe especially in the face of constantly fluctuating circumstances.

Yet, I didn’t want to default to the traditional ways. “Too weak to give in, too strong to lose “as the Foo Fighters sing.😉

What was needed was a way to provide the required visibility and yet have the flexibility to adjust work to what was possible any given week.

The inspiration came from a personal productivity journal called 21/90 (link in the comments below) I came across. Wondering how I could adapt it to a corporate setting, I came up with the following.

So, how does it work? The 90/21/7 stands for:

90: You define the outcomes you’d like to achieve at the end of the next 90 days. It’s long enough to give the required “visibility” and align on results to be achieved while being short enough to stay flexible. Stakeholders know what they can expect, and teams know what they are working towards. Everybody is aligned on what needs to be accomplished at the end of the 90 days.

21: During those 90 days, you’ll run four sprints of three weeks, 21 days, each. The sprints increase your flexibility further while at the same time allowing the team to start practicing working in sprints. You’ll only plan one sprint at a time, though. If you need more “visibility” about what will happen during the 90 days, you can define outcomes to be achieved at the end of each sprint to reach the final 90-day outcomes. But specific activities to reach the sprint outcomes are only planned at the beginning of each sprint or even only at the beginning of each week.

7: Running four sprints of three weeks each means you’ll have one week left at the end to get to 90 days. This is your buffer week, or finish line sprint, allowing you to accommodate anything open or unforeseen — a little bit of safety, which puts many teams at ease.

That’s the basic framework. Applying it could look like this.

Step 1: As a team, list all your projects, initiatives, or responsibilities and for each, define the following:

  • Define the 90 days outcomes: What do you want to achieve in the next 90 days? Define the outcomes you’d like to achieve from a customer/user/stakeholder point of view. If you have OKRs, you could also use these here.
  • Define the 21 days sprint outcomes: What intermediary results do you need to achieve at the end of four sprints of three weeks to get to your 90 days objectives and key results? What outcomes will you deliver at the end of each sprint?
  • Define the first seven days activities (I know…above the seven days were for the buffer week, here, it’s for the next seven days😉): What activities do you need to do in the next seven days to move you closer to the sprint results? What’s realistic, considering anything else the team might have on its plate? You could also do this for the next 21 days if you feel seven days is too narrow.

Step 2: At the end of the week, hold a retrospective:

  • What did you achieve this week?
  • What worked well?
  • What needs to be improved?

Step 3: Plan the next seven days:

What needs to happen in the next seven days to move closer to your sprint results? What can you realistically achieve?

Step 4: Do a retrospective at the end of each sprint. Plan the next one. Maybe you need to update the outcomes?

Step 5: Repeat 🔄

A couple of thoughts and hints:

  • If you’re working on multiple projects or initiatives, repeat the above for each.
  • If you’re working on a single project, you could do the above for each work package.
  • Instead of defining the outcomes per project or work package, you could describe it per customer/user/stakeholder.
  • Daily stand-ups — if you feel like you need them, sure, why not.
  • I usually use a Google sheet to outline all of the above. Everybody gets access, of course.

It should be clear how the methodology can help to foster the five principles of human-centered work:

  • Purpose can either be the frame for defining the 90-day outcomes, or the 90 days outcomes themselves can act as purpose.
  • Progress is visualized and achieved by focusing on the sprint results and the weekly planning.
  • Collaboration: You’ll engage the team in the planning and you’ll enhance collaboration because everybody knows what everybody else is working on.
  • Transparency: The 90/21/7 methodology provides transparency of work in progress, desired outcomes, activities, results, and how well the team is doing.
  • People Positive: The team is in charge of defining outcomes and work for each sprint and week. And it requires management to trust in their teams to deliver what they promised.

When would you want to consider this?

  • The team needs alignment but wants to avoid rigid over-planning.
  • Your team is not comfortable yet with planning “only “the next sprint and asks for more “visibility “down the line.
  • It might be challenging to estimate how long certain activities will take or what level of effort will be required to get something done.
  • Your team feels super busy, but not like it’s making progress towards meaningful outcomes.
  • The team wants to increase transparency about work in progress and outcomes to be achieved.

Why not just do a Kanban or similar?

  • If your team is used to more traditional planning, a Kanban will often feel too messy.
  • A Kanban often only holds tasks that aren’t linked to any outcomes. This can lead to being busy only but not making real progress towards outcomes. Or at least not seeing it.
  • If you have many projects or initiatives going on (which you should try to limit), a Kanban can feel overwhelming.

I put together a package with a template and a video explaining how I use that template. It’s free. Click here to get access.

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