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What gets done at which Flight Level?

What gets done at which Flight Level and what should be happening at that flight level? We encounter this question over and over. This is partly due to how we use terms like “strategy”, “strategy operationalization”, end-to-end coordination, etc.

There is nothing worse than creating confusion by using inconsistent and undefined terms. This article will answer this question again for everyone (including us), so that we will remain uniform in our communication about flight levels.

The Flight Levels Model is a way of thinking that can be applied to any company. It is compatible at all levels with existing methods and is not itself another “method”. The Flight Levels Model is a tool for reflection. What can we leverage within the company in order to improve our business agility and achieve the desired direction in the market?

Flight Level 3 is dedicated to strategy. Here, objectives are defined and are put into a larger temporal context (e.g. three-year or five-year goals). Then, the focus is placed on the next year, the next three months, or some short-term timeframe. What does the company want to concentrate on in the next iteration? Which actions bring us closer to our goal and how will progress be measured? One popular tool for this strategy work is OKR – Objectives and Key Results (see https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Objectives_and_Key_Results). Regardless how the strategy is developed and how many hierarchical levels are at Flight Level 3, eventually “actions” (also known as initiatives, activities or projects) are created that will need to be coordinated end-to-end at Flight Level 2. ATTENTION: Strategic topics from the levels below can and must be included in the strategic planning!

These actions are prioritized at Flight Level 3 and serve as input for Flight Level 2, where actions are started as soon as capacity is available (pull principle). This prioritization and the selection of actions to be executed in the next iteration creates the focus required to move forward efficiently and purposefully.

Each strategy topic has one or more actions. At regular intervals, the goal status is jointly evaluated by participants of all Flight Levels, which creates transparency for Flight Level 2 (and subsequently also for Flight Level 1). The joint evaluation shows how the initiatives/actions/things contribute to the company’s strategy. Strategic alignment can be so simple.

At each Flight Level there can (but not necessarily!) be several, possibly even hierarchical, boards – even at Flight Level 3. An example: The strategy of an IT-heavy company for the next iteration includes management’s business goals and the IT department’s technical initiatives. Several top-level strategy boards will exist, but a consolidated view must be generated. This consolidated view is also a strategic view with a synopsis of the two top-level topics. When developing this derived strategy board, inputs from both sides are prioritized, dependencies taken into account and the focus of the project is defined.

Flight Level 2 is the workbench of end-to-end coordination in the company. The initiatives from Flight Level 3 become the backlog items for Flight Level 2. The work or initiatives to be carried out in the next iteration are derived from this backlog. Flight Level 2 is a coordination level. Large tasks (sometimes called Epics) taken from the backlog are prioritized and placed in the implementation backlog for the teams (Flight Level 1). The teams take work (pull principle) when they have capacity available.

Each action is accompanied by “agile interactions” at regular intervals (stand-up meetings, workshops, etc.). By doing this, the flow of work through the system is maintained and improved, if necessary. These interactions also establish the area of focus for the next iteration at Flight Level 2, making it clear what Flight Level 1 should be delivering.

Flight Level 2, and the agile interactions taking place here, play a central role in the coordination and resolution of dependencies between teams/products/initiatives. Managing, and in the best case even resolving, these dependencies is often the biggest lever to improve the flow of work in the system. That’s why this topic is so important to us.

The working system at Flight Level 2 can also consist of hierarchical boards. If the boards at Flight Level 2 are oriented towards products, for example, there can be one or more coordination boards for product groups. It may also be necessary to coordinate work between different products when multiple products need to be changed for the implementation of a strategic theme. This results in dependencies that need to be managed.

Last but not least, Flight Level 1 creates the deliverables – it is the operational level in the company. This is where the operational teams who receive work from Flight Level 2 (Epics) are based. For each iteration, the teams concentrate on a certain scope (e.g. in Scrum it is the sprint target) and implement these tasks. On Flight Level 1, for example, the user stories from Epics are cut into tasks and implemented. Short iterations are planned and the finished work is delivered.

For the coordination, each team sends representatives to the agile interactions of Flight Level 2. But even at Flight Level 1 itself, there can (and will) be such interactions from a certain size of the company. Standups are an example of this. Another example would be a common architecture board, with whose help the teams coordinate the architecture of the product to be delivered. However, such a board is not a Flight Level 2 board, as it deals with topics that directly affect the delivery of the work.

As already mentioned in Flight Level 3, strategic or cross-product topics might arise which cannot be handled as purely operational work within the scope of normal activities. There might be topics that have a significant influence on the strategy. In this case, it is up to Flight Level 1 to pass these topics on to Flight Level 2 or even 3 so that they can be planned in the coming iterations.

The agile interactions at and between all levels are the tactical component of the work. Here, the existing competences can be organized around the work in such a way that the outcome, rather than the output, is maximized. “Outcome” means doing the right thing – and that doesn’t always have to happen super-efficiently. For an economically managed company, it is much more important to deliver the right thing and not be fully loaded than to deliver the completely wrong thing at full capacity.

This is what we see most often in organizations: the focus must be on the outcome. Companies often deliver a great deal (output), but have the feeling that they cannot achieve anything (no economically noticeable outcome).

Organizations must learn to align their competencies and capacities with the work, and not to align the work with the competencies. Otherwise, a lot may be delivered, but not what results in the sense of the strategy. But that is a different story and will be examined in more detail in another article.

Who shall be the voice of the Rethinking Agile audio book?

We are currently in the process of bringing Rethinking Agile to the audio world. We have already pre-selected three possible voices and want your help by selecting the final one. Please listen to the samples below and select one of the speakers in the form and send us what you think! If you would like to be notified when the Rethinking Agile audio book is published, please leave us your e-mail address. This is optional. Thank you for your help!

Are Flight Levels the Shu, Ha or Ri of agility – or is that the wrong question?

I have often thought about what Shu-Ha-Ri means in terms of agility. I also often hear that Flight Levels are a Ri thing. I’m not so sure about that, so I try to put my thoughts into words.

Shu-Ha-Ri is a cool thing and I can well imagine that it works in many areas when it comes to learning something completely new. But I’m not sure if agility and/or Flight Levels are something completely new.

If a highly paid manager is unable to establish the required agility of his company in the market, then in my view he is not at the Shu level of agility, but at the Shu level of management.  There can be no Ri manager who acts at the Shu level of agile management when the market demands agility. That would be just like a Michelin star chef (Ri) not being able to cook rice dishes (Shu). If a star chef cannot cook rice, he is most likely not a star chef.

Yes, if you introduce Flight Levels as a thinking model in your organization, you will have to think. And that’s a good thing! The highest maxim of the Flight Levels is: “Thinking is explicitly allowed”. It is strongly desired that managers turn on their brains and – yes – also contribute their experience. They are not idiots, but smart people, which is why they run companies. I find it really disturbing when poster and framework agilists dictate to managers what they have to do to become agile. But I find it even more disturbing when experienced managers let themselves be dictated. Poster and framework agility is convenient. If it doesn’t work, managers can blame the method. Consultants, on the other hand, can say: “Of course it doesn’t work. You didn’t do it like the book says.”

With the Flight Levels we take a different path. We believe in the ability and responsibility of managers and even consultants. The Flight Levels model can help to get an overview of what needs to be done at which levels in an organization to achieve what you want to achieve. But the Flight Levels are not a recipe to follow – they “only” help to make the right decisions. The people involved have to think and make decisions themselves. When Flight Levels are applied in organizations, we often hear: “Now we finally see clearly where the problem lies and what we have to do”. And that’s really awesome!

Unfortunately, I am not smart enough to come up with the ultimate recipe for how every organization in every industry and of every size should work best. I also can’t imagine that such a recipe exists. Hopefully in every organization there are experts who know how to manage a company (aka managers). I am always very humble and honored when I see that managers use Flight Levels as a tool to make their daily work more effective.

Rethinking Agile – Ebook

It happened after all – there is an electronic version of the book Rethinking Agile. We have long resisted publishing an ebook because we believe that the print version is simply unbeatable. Rethinking Agile is a fully illustrated book that lives from the beautiful illustrations of Matthias Seifert and the excellent layout by Mario Simon-Horr. Especially the layout gets completely lost in an ebook. But the number of requests for an ebook didn’t decrease – we even had a ready-made answer in our ticketing system – and that’s why we thought, “Whatever, let’s do it”. The offer:

Kindle-Version on Amazon in many different countries (US UK DE FR ES IT NL JP BR CA MX AU IN) for about €9,99


As an introductory bonus, there’s also a coupon that allows you to receive the Leanpub Bundle for only $19.99. The coupon is valid until 15 September 2019. A very good offer!

In the next weeks we will publish the German version as an Ebook. Many thanks to Marina Grosser, who produced the ebook and of course to Dolores Omann, who coordinated the text!