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August 07, 2018

Responding to Change Over Following a Plan: Agile Lessons from Antarctica

4 mins read

I spent the first part of January in Antarctica hanging out with penguins, whales, and seals. It was an incredible experience and about as different from my day-to-day work as can be. And yet, on my long flight back home, I couldn’t help but reflect on how well my trip aligned with one specific value of the Agile Manifesto: “Responding to change over following a plan.”

No Planning with Agile?

It’s a common misconception that there’s no need to plan in Agile. This isn’t the case, but specific approaches to planning do change—from big upfront design to a “just enough” approach. The act of planning still has great value—it can spur discussions that lead to new discoveries, improved understanding, and a clearer sense of the true goal—when it occurs at the right level. However, in Agile, we accept that many things will change and we’ll need to remain flexible to respond to them. If we’ve planned well, we’ll go into those changes with a clear sense of our goal and how to still achieve it under the new circumstances.

Nowhere is this truer than in Antarctica.

Planning on an Antarctic Cruise

The first briefing aboard our ship was all about expectation setting. Our expedition leader wanted to build trust by being transparent about her team’s planning, the process she’d use to make decisions, and how she’d keep us informed when things changed. She also tried to prepare us for the fact that our plans WOULD change.

She explained all the reasons her team spent a lot of time planning; passenger safety and experience were at the top of the list. She also detailed the reasons plans would change often, like weather (wind, fog, wave surges, near hurricane-force winds, etc.), other forces out of her control (military exercises nearby), and newly discovered information (whale sightings, calmer than expected conditions, etc.). Most of the adjustments involved the specifics of how we were going to accomplish one of our goals, not wholesale changes to the goals themselves.

The ever-changing weather in Antarctica


On to Plan D – Just a Normal Day in Antarctica

Let me give you an example. One day, our goal was to see Gentoo penguins. The night before, the expedition team briefed us on their carefully prepared plan. It was based on their knowledge of the best viewing spots in the area and took the expected weather conditions into account. We’ll call that Plan A.

Plan A lasted until Plan B was announced during the morning wake-up call. We were a little behind schedule, so disembarkation times were pushed a half an hour. As we were eating breakfast, Plan C arrived. Our first-choice landing spot wasn’t going to work; the wave surge was too high, making for a dangerous landing. So, we were going to go around the corner of the peninsula to try to land there. And… success! We saw a massive Gentoo penguin colony!

A Gentoo penguin colony

Afterward, per plan, we went on a quick zodiac cruise. We were almost done when someone spotted a whale tail off in the distance! We seized the opportunity and embarked on Plan D – an extended zodiac cruise to check out those whales up close.

Whale spotting


My Takeaway

My trip strengthened my appreciation for “responding to change over following a plan” and increased my empathy for team members struggling with dynamic situations. Even though regular re-planning became a normal part of being in Antarctica, we often had Plans A through D, and sometimes E, F, and G, it wasn’t a natural fit with every passenger’s personality. Observing their difficulties gave me more empathy for members of my own team who struggle with changing plans. And I can certainly understand; by the time we left Antarctica, 6 days later than planned (due to weather, of course), even I was crossing my fingers and hoping for a plan that would stick!

But, the trip really emphasized why we need both planning AND, even more importantly, the ability to respond to change. It was the expedition team’s ability to adjust to new circumstances that protected me and the other passengers from negative outcomes and maximized our positive experiences. By avoiding potentially dangerous situations and seizing exciting new opportunities, we got a truly amazing Antarctic adventure.


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