Monthly Archives: August 2015

Agile Tools don’t fix problems, they reveal them.

Sometimes we are lucky to work with someone whose insight into the work we do has a profound affect on the way we see what we are doing. One such person is Tony Grout who changed the way I look at Agile. “Agile doesn’t tell you how to write software” Tony said. “Agile provides you with the minimal tools that show you were something is wrong, tools that show you where you have a problem.” As Dan North would say Agile practices illuminate or visualise problems, they don’t necessarily solve them.
Over the past few weeks I have been working with a client to set up Capacity Planning and Metric Mapping (the name for the practice of linking a hierarchy of metrics using hypotheses). I’ve done both a few times now so I was able to take a step back and observe what was going on. Both Capacity Planning and Metric Mapping show you problems to be solved. Neither tell you how to the solve the problem.

Unlike some Agile Scaling Frameworks, Capacity Planning does not tell you how to make decisions. Capacity Planning does not care whether you use HiPPOs , or business cases or some messed up version of Weighted Shortest Job First. All Capacity Planning tells you is that you have to make a decision. This allows the organisation to evolve how to make decisions. It allows the organisation to take “safe to fail” steps with change, cultural, process or otherwise. All Capacity Planning does is show the problems, it does not dictate the solutions.
What are the problems that Capacity Planning reveals?

  1. It is common for the product owner to have one-to-one conversations with different stakeholders/decision makers. Each stakeholder applies pressure to the product owner to get what they want. When the product owner and team fail to deliver they are blamed even though the problem was caused by unrealistic expectations. I call this the hub and spoke model. Each stakeholder (who may be a product owner themselves) individually applies pressure on the product owner who has to resolve these organisational priorities. The Capacity Planning process puts all of the stakeholders in a discussion together and takes the product owner out of the middle. The product owner now simply states the capacity they have available and the effort necessary to perform each piece of the stake holder’s initiatives. The stakeholders are now forced into a conversation where they have to work out the priority of the work amongst themselves. Capacity Planning does not tell you how to resolve the priorities but it means everyone needs to think of the organisation’s goals rather than just their own.
  2. Capacity Planning reveals if the organisation’s reward mechanisms and appraisal system creates behaviour that are directly in conflict with the goals of the organisation. The organisation wants the most valuable work to flow through the constraints. The reward system drives individuals to achieve their own personal goals rather than the goals of the organisation. Once again, Capacity Planning does not tell you how to fix your reward system, it just highlights the problem.
  3. In order to run a Capacity Planning session it is necessary for each initiative owner to get a Sweet Wild Asses Guess (SWAG) estimate from any team that will need to contribute to the initiative. Capacity Planning does not tell you how to come up with a SWAG other than to warn against putting too much effort into a throw away piece of work. The SWAG indicates that product owner has acknowledged the existance of the work and feels confident enough to give an estimate. In effect, The SWAG is a record that the owner of the initiative has had a conversation with the product owner of the contributing team. Capacity Planning forces the conversation. It does not say what happens in the conversation and it does not say how the estimate should be calculated. The SWAG simply provides the Capacity Planning facilitators with a mechanism to track the conversations. The SWAG forces organisations to have conversations before initiatives start rather than when they are mid flight.
  4. One of the outcomes of Capacity Planning is a list of the teams that are constraining the organisation because they do not have enough capacity. It also shows the teams that have excess capacity.Capacity Plan Capacity Planning does not tell you how to move “work to the teams”, or “teams to the work” (Another Tony’ism). It simply shows you where you need extra capacity and where you already have excess capacity. There are many solutions for “moving the work to the team” or “moving the team to the work”. (The Bank of America Case Study offers one of the more interesting solutions as it is more dynamic that others than mandate long lived teams.)

Capacity Planning makes it clear that the ability of an organisation to deliver over the short term (three months) is based on the capacity of the constrained teams and its staff liquidity, and has little to do with the budget for the organisation as a whole.

In summary, Capacity Planning shows you where your stakeholders cannot prioritise, it shows you where initiative owners are not communicating with the teams that they need to deliver value, It shows you where capacity is in the wrong place. It does not tell you how to solve these problems, it just makes them transparent.

Metric Mapping is the process by which a Product Manager picks three or four key metrics to demonstrate the success of their product. They agree these metrics with their manager. The manager also has three or four key metrics. The manager has a portfolio of (product) metrics and they have a hypothesis that if their product managers improve their metrics, in turn their manager metrics will improve. The product managers have hypotheses that if they improve some aspect of their product, their metrics will improve.

Metric Mapping requires engineering managers to have metrics. Work that is done to improve the “non functionals” of the product. The head of engineering should also have a couple of metrics. Ideally one for customer perceived quality, and the other lead time based (actually duration or weighted lead time).

All work should be mapped to these metrics. This allows everyone to have a portfolio view of the investments made by the organisation and adjust investment strategies accordingly. Metric mapping does not tell you what the metrics should be. Metric Mapping does not tell you how the metrics should be chosen. Metric Mapping ensures that there are conversations between the different levels of the organisation. These conversations ensure consistency and coherence between investments and what the organisation considers success to be. The portfolio view shows where there is too much or too little investment. It does tell you how to fix this problem.

Metric Mapping allows everyone to see whether investments are coherent, and whether metrics between different levels of the organisation are coherent. For example:

  • A product manager says they are investing to reduce web site page load times to improve customer satisfaction. This is coherent.
  • A product manager says they are adding adverts to the web page to improve customer satisfaction. This is incoherent.
  • A manager has a metric to improve customer satisfaction and so agrees with their product manager that one of their metrics should be call centre call length times. This is incoherent

Managers should set goals based on their metrics. They should not set goals based on their subordinates metrics. Furthermore, they should never tell the subordinate how to improve a metric unless the subordinate asks for their advice. They can of course point out where investments to move metrics are not coherent, and they can help them to understand how to move metrics as a coach.
Metric Mapping helps organisations to see problems and incoherent investments. It allows everyone in organisation to identify investments and hypotheses that are not coherent. It does not tell you how to solve the problems.
And so Capacity Planning and Metric Mapping align with Tony Grout’s observation about Agile. Both show problems but don’t tell you how to solve them. The solution depends your context. In your context, you may form a release train to plan your work for the next quarter. Or you may bring everyone in your department into a room and ask them to self organise. Or you may use a tick list. Depending on your context, one of these solutions might be good or bad. There are however some solutions that are less likely to work than others…. We Shall Just Forget (WSJF) those.