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Lack of Predictability: Your Biggest Problem

Reading: Lack of Predictability: Your Biggest Problem

What I’m seeing at many of my clients is an inability to know what will be completed in the next release. This shows up as missed dates and frustration over broken commitments and “unreliable teams”. When the executives inquire, they get finger pointing and non-answers, such as “the 3rd party software was late” or “software development is just inherently unpredictable”. Further, the yardstick they use to evaluate teams doesn’t help. They don’t realize, from top to bottom, that their biggest problem is a lack of predictability. Let me give you an anecdote.

I recently had the opportunity to coach a team considered the best in the company. During an earnings announcement, their CEO credited this group for driving a large percentage of the increase in revenue over the last quarter. This was a big deal. What did they do that other teams should be doing? Can they continue to deliver such results for the company? Actually, this team has no idea how much they can accomplish. Not in this coming release. Not this month. Not even this sprint. Are you seeing this in your organization?

Think Differently

They consider this the best team as measured by short-term business results, but if they aren’t predictable then revenue results aren’t enough. Although many CEOs are after short-term results, it does them no good if next quarter’s numbers aren’t close to guidance. The market hates surprises. Predictable steady growth is crucial. What this CEO really wants to know is how they are going to do next quarter.

Further, market factors and chance account for the results more than this team’s skill – any team could have produced those results given the chance to work on that product. This team actually may be the worst in the company when it comes to developing high-quality features each release. The product is the best by revenue, but the team has no influence over those results or with how they operate. Their results are a red herring.

Hidden Costs

What is the entire organization not paying attention to?  Predictability.

Here is a little taste of what’s going on: The members of this team change often. They borrow people from other teams, which contributes to their over-commitment each sprint and hurts the others. People are on multiple teams and commit to none of them. A couple days after planning, a programmer says he won’t help with their stories because he is helping another team instead. The Product Owner applies pressures to proceed without the required usability involvement, causing rework. They agree to start work on stories that are not ready for development. Attention from the directors through executives greatly increases the pressure, encouraging them to take on too much work each sprint. They regularly reschedule and ultimately cancel their retrospectives. And I could go on.

Their environment is keeping them from being predictable and productive. Sound familiar?

The Fix

Of course, it’s easy to say “don’t do that”, but much harder to implement changes. It requires a program of intentional improvement at the team, program and portfolio levels, supplemented with needs-based training, demonstrating results via agile health metrics and progress via assessment scores.

Since most organizations don’t know how to get predictable, many seek help from an enterprise-level agile coach. Since getting predictable in an enterprise is not a quick process, you need an agile coach who understands how to help when the organization isn’t agile yet. The type of coach you need will help the teams be as predictable as possible given their constraints; One who can help produce factual information about the velocity and quality that teams are able to achieve; One who can credibly express the impact of organizational behaviors that are reducing the company’s potential. You need a coach who will be a guide, interpreting assessments and metrics, relating training to day-to-day events, and cementing lessons learned in training sessions and workshops.

Our Approach

That is what my colleagues and I have been doing lately. We’ve helped companies get predictable. We focus on the end goal, but are pragmatic in our approach. Training is not enough. Sustainable change requires a holistic approach. Specifically, one must address the structure of the organization, their practices, and ultimately their culture. It takes a sustained effort to make a real difference. Engage with a company, meet them where they are, and help get them where they need to be.

* Thanks to many of my colleagues for help writing this article. I liberally stole whole sentences from Mark Kilby, Mike Cottmeyer, Dennis Stevens, Isaac Hogue and others.

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