Investing with Cynefin: Obvious

The counter-intuitive aspect of investments in the obvious domain is that organisations should seek to minimise investment in this domain. As Dave Snowden once pointed out, organisations have no competitive advantage in the obvious domain. Investments in the obvious domain are often as a result of constraints imposed by regulatory bodies.


Many organisations have a special categorisation for investments “Regulatory and Mandatory”. These investments are often referred to as

“Must be done!”

A more intelligent description would be:

“Must be done if the organisation wishes to remain in that particular business.”

The reframing is very important. In the late naughties, an investment bank faced with expensive regulatory investments decided to sell its commodities business. This freed up capital that could be invested to make its other business lines stronger.

A common mistake when investing in regulatory and mandatory investments to to try and be the best, to attempt to invest and excel. Using Niel Nickolaisen’s purpose alignment model (Check out Kent McDonald’s excellent description here along with other useful tools), regulatory investments fall in the parity quadrant. Investors should seek to be “good enough” but not invest and excel. This often means implementing a third party solution if an appropriate one is available. Where an appropriate third party solution is not available, the solution should be architected in such a manner that it is easy to migrate to one when it is available.

The strategy for regulatory investments is to minimise total cost of ownership with a “good enough” solution. Unfortunately organisations often misinterpret this as “Implement with your cheapest resources” which is a path to failure and excessive costs. Given that regulations in a market normally increase and are rarely removed, the organisation should consider the long term implications of any solution. This means that regulatory investments should be implemented using eXtreme programming techniques that support safe, rapid and cheap modification in the future.

Realistically, the only way to turn regulatory investments into strategic investments is to deliver a solution to the regulator before your competitors. That way, your organisation can influence the regulators and disrupt any competitors using traditional techniques.

In summary, even though the investment may be obvious, the solution may require careful thought.

Investing with Cynefin: Chaos

To properly understand the Chaos domain in Cynefin, you must consider it from the perspective of the Complex Domain. In the Complex Domain there is enough information for us to form multiple hypotheses. By defintion, in the Chaos Domain, there is not enough information for us to even create a hypothesis. We need to act in order to form hypotheses. Hence:

  • Act
  • Sense
  • Respond

Investments in the Chaos domain should fundamentally be about gaining information.


Novelty often occurs in the Chaos domain because there is a need to act but no known solution. As a result, it is easy to see that innovation occurs in the Chaos domain as no hypotheses exist to guide the investment. Many investments in the Chaos domain are often pure bets where by definition, the pay off is unknowable.

However there is a form of investment in the Chaos domain that is not a pure bet. A form of investment that is often scorned and overlooked… An investment in insight and measurement.

Many organisations invest millions, or even billions in transformation efforts to improve themselves. These organisations will spend a fortune on “consultants” and “thought leaders” but struggle to find funding to demonstrate whether the changes are successful. The reason is that it is impossible to put “accurate” cost saving or revenue estimates on being able to see. Success is often a matter of an executive’s opinion, rather than being based on data. An organisation that cannot measure whether it is successful with an investment will continue to make bad investments, and will fail to learn how to make good ones. The more accurate the accurate the measurement, the more efficient the learning.

Investment in the measurement of the organisation should be overseen by executives to ensure that it happens. An absence of transparency is a failing of the culture, and hence a failing of executives who have a responsibility to investors.

Before investing in a transformation, the organisation should first invest in the measure that will prove the success or otherwise of the transformation. For an Agile transformation, that means investing the measurement of lead time (weighted lead time). This measurement is most easily done on historic data rather than waiting for new data. All that is needed is to link existing data to value rather than functionality. However the value of reorganising existing data is often considered waste and so organisations continue without insight.

Executives who engage on transformations without measurement of lead time time are like drivers who close their eyes whenever they get behind the wheel of a car.

Enabling Constraints and Hippos

One of the most profound insights on enabling constraints came from Marc Burgauer… “Enabling constraints cannot form if a dominant hippo is involved in making the decisions”.


Enabling constraints form agents into a higher order systems. The higher order system provides feedback to the agents to constrain their behaviour and stabilise the enabling constraint.

Part of the process of enabling constraints is the micro-conflicts where the agents give and take in order to align with each other. This will only happen between “peers”. “Peers” means that one of the agents is not a dominant Hippo around whom all the other agents attempt to align. The dominant hippo might be considered the “Apex Predator” in apex predator theory. The apex hippo can dispatch any member of the group without any fear of reprisals. This means that the dominant hippo always wins the prisoner’s dilemma regardless of the outcome. The only way the apex hippo will fail is if the fitness landscape changes, i.e. from a change in the context, or an outside context threat (i.e. Another hippo from the outcome).

Teams and communities that trust each and work in aligned manner do not emerge with an apex hippo present. Instead, identity is formed based on the relationship with the dominant hippo. The goal of each member of the team is to align more closely with the dominant hippo than their colleagues. The goal is to maintain the pecking order. Relationships with other members of the team are incidental and unimportant.

At Skype, we had a apex hippo. Andrew Sinclair was the executive in charge of product. Andrew intuitively understood this and refused to engage in the decision making process. Instead, Andrew used his status and influence to act as a guardian of the process, frequently reminding participants of their responsibilities and the rules of the game, and keeping the group focused on the goal.

The Extreme Tuesday Club in London is the most successful community I’ve been a member of . Simply identifying yourself as a member lead to an immediate trusted relationship with other members. XTC did not have an apex hippo, however XTC had many many leaders to the point where even identifying the leadership was difficult. Conflict was about the only constant at XTC. Conflict and that it always happened on a Tuesday.

I have observed other groups based around an individual or a small group of individuals. Those individuals feel that the community is theirs. None of them evolved into a community where members would bond with each other purely on the basis they were interested in the same thing. More often than not these communities have leaders who are anointed by the apex hippo. They have a revolving door of new members joining as old members leave. They achieve little other than to act as a marketing channel for the apex hippo.

So if you want to build a team, or build a community around an idea, you will need to create an enabling constraint, stimulate micro-conflict, and prevent conflict avoidance.


First kill the apex hippo… especially if it is yourself.

Enabling Constraints and Micro-Conflicts

Luke Hohmann’s innovation games include two classic enabling constraints, 20/20 Vision and Buy-A-Feature. Examining these and other constraints reveals that an important part of enabling constraints may be micro-conflicts.


20/20 Vision

20/20 vision is a simple and effective innovation game for prioritising a list of items. A number of people come together either physically or on-line using Luke’s Hohmann’s Weave product. The group start with a list of items and randomly pick one. They then randomly pick another and compare its priority to the first item. It can be higher or lower but never the same priority. The third item is then compared to first two. For each, the group decide if the new item is a higher or lower priority. This process is completed for as much of the list as the group wants to prioritise.

The simple rules of the game create a constraint.

  • The list must be strictly ordered.
  • Compare one item at a time.

The constraint ensures conflict between the stakeholders. They have to engage with each other and discuss the relative priority of each pair of items. It is not possible for an individual to order the list without engaging with the other stakeholders.

In order to win each contest when comparing two items, the stakeholders need to articulate the value of the item and why they need it. By doing this they reveal their intent.

Buy a Feature

Buy a feature is another of Luke’s Innovation Games. The game is played by a small group in person or online. A list of features is provided, each with its estimated cost. Each player is given an equal amount of money. The total money available will only cover a portion of the features. Many of the features require the money from more than one player. The players have to build their ideal backlog, convincing the other players to invest in the features they value the most.

As with 20/20 Vision, the constraints of the game ensures conflict between the players, and requires them to reveal their intent in order to convince the other players.

Conflict and Collaboration

When groups come together they are in the forming stage. They are careful to ensure that their concerns do not overlap with others until they know them better. They try not to step on each other’s toes as they do not want to be judged harshly by the rest of the group.


As individuals gain confidence, they grow their area of concern. As a result, the concerns of one or more individuals overlap. This leads to conflict. Through the conflict, they learn how to resolve issues between them.

A number of things can happen:

  • The group grow to become a team who collaborate with each other
  • The group gets stuck in conflict
  • The group avoids all conflict

Groups that become teams engage in conflict when their concerns overlap.


They will argue over small things at first and then bigger things. When they become a team, they do not necessarily expect everyone to adopt the same values and beliefs. In fact, they grow to value and respect the values and beliefs of the other people in the team. In other words they validate the identity of the other team members in the team. They value the differences to themselves and the diversity of the team.

A healthy team engages in many micro-conflicts as they give and take on the road to becoming a team. For example, they might win the battle to adopt “Given When Then” but give up on the adoption of “Mock Objects”. “Giving in” is an important part of the team building process. It is the “giving in” that forms their new identity as part of the team. It is the price they pay for their new identity.

A healthy team engages in conflict all the while. The conflict focuses on the ideas and things with an understanding that good things will come from the discussion. A healthy team does not challenge the identity of the people in the team. Compare “Boris is a pain in the neck, he challenges everything we suggest which makes every discussion harder, and we are slower for it.” and “Sarah is brilliant, she challenges everything we suggest which makes every discussion harder, and we are get awesome outcomes as a result.”

Most people dislike conflict, especially over the long term. If the group cannot resolve their differences, they are more likely to avoid conflict by avoiding each other. If the group does engage in direct conflict for a prolonged period, the whole group will fail. Failing groups tend to draw more people in which makes failure more visible to the wider organisation. A public failure of the entire group is normally enough to a catalyst to tip them into norming. ( As an aside, I have found Dan Mezick’s triad concept to be an effective structure to help groups at this point ). The norming phase is early collaboration where people often over share for fear of causing another group failure, or they gradually share increasing amounts of information. In both cases, they get to a point where trust is established and they understand what other people want to be informed about.

If the group avoids conflict, the boundaries are carefully negotiated to prevent conflict. I call this the cold war.

Avoiding Conflict

Skirmishes occur at the borders but sharing and communication are contractually agreed. These contracts often involves one or both parties telling the other the things they can and cannot do. Consider the relationship between Business Analysts and Developers, and Developers and IT Operations. Service Level Agreements are a clear indicator of a cold war relationship between two groups. When these conflicts fail, they can be quite unpleasant. These conflicts are like the Cuban Missile Crisis or Vietnam where the two main powers (e.g. Executives) do not engage directly but rather engage in a proxy war. For the people directly involved, the impact can be devastating.

Avoid conflict guarantees that the group will never evolve into a team, avoiding conflict perpetuates conflict and prevents collaboration from emerging.

The Strategy of Conflict

The strategy of conflict is a game theory strategy developed for the United States to defeat the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It is a very effective strategy for “winning” when you are in conflict with others.

It has several strategies for winning:

  1. Hide your intent.
  2. Withhold information.
  3. Do not communicate with your opposition.
  4. Do not allow competitors to have access to your decision maker.

Both 20/20 vision and Buy a feature constrain members of the group to do the opposite to one, two and three. Both require people to share their intent, why they want an item, and how it will help them. To improve the chances of an item “winning”, both require people to share all the information they have. Both force communication.

I am aware of examples where the decision makers come together and form the enabling constraint. Perceiving that the situation is in control, they send a proxy on their behalf. Where the proxy is not fully authorised to speak on behalf of the decision maker, and the decision maker is not bound by the commitments made by the proxy, the enabling constraint falls apart. If a stakeholder is unable to partipate in an enabling constraint, they must empower their proxy and commit the decisions made.

Enabling constraints need to be constructed in such a way as to prevent members from avoiding conflict, and create a dispositionality towards collaboration.


My hypothesis is that the micro-conflicts evident in 20/20 Vision and Buy a Feature are an important but often overlooked part of the process of forming an enabling constraint.

An enabling constraint creates micro-conflicts that dispose people to “give up” and invest in the team. This investment means they value the team, and they value the identity they acquire by becoming a member.

Budget Games

Since 2010, Luke Hohmann has been helping the Mayor of San Jose engage with the population about its budget. Budget Games, a large scale implementation of buy a feature, has been run every year since.

Whilst the purpose of the exercise was to order the backlog (prioritise the budget), one of the impacts has been that Budget Games has also built and strengthened the community in San Jose.

The community has been formed as much by years of micro-conflicts where some people give, and some people receive.

Capacity Planning and Cost of Delay

Effective prioritisation has two outcomes, it creates an ordered backlog that can be used to align an organisation’s activity, and it forms decision makers into a team. The first outcome can be considered tactical and the second strategic. Arguably the second is more valuable than the first as it will result in optimising the outcomes for the organisation rather than each decision maker attempting to optimise their own outcome. When each decision maker attempts to optimise their own outcome, the outcome for the organisation is often sub-optimal.


Now that we  understand that there are two outcomes, we can ensure that both occur. All to often we will deliver the tactical ordered backlog but fail to form the decision makers into a team. We need to ensure that we form the decision makers into a team AND we order the backlog.

An enabling constraint is one that creates a higher order system that provides feedback to the agents in the lower order system and constrains their behaviour. In concrete terms, an enabling constraint takes a group of individuals and constrains them in some way to form them into a team. Becoming a member of that team feeds back into their identity and constrains the way that they behave. For example, membership of the team may constrain members to consider the needs of the organisation above their own needs, goals or targets.

A decision making tool helps a team to order the backlog. It provides a common frame of reference to enable comparison of disparate items.

Sometimes it is possible that a single tool can achieve both outcomes. At Maersk, Cost of Delay was (apparently*) used not only to order the backlog, but also the mechanism to bring the stakeholders together. Cost of Delay acted as an enabling constraint that aligned the decision makers. In the context where all investments have to be expressed in financial terms, Cost of Delay can act as an enabling constraint.

In some contexts, it is useful to separate the enabling constraint that forms the team from the decision making mechanism. This allows you to change the decision making mechanism without losing the team. If the enabling constraint and decision making mechanism are too deeply entwined, failure of the decision making mechanism may cause the enabling constraint to fail. For example:

  • An economic decision making mechanism is being used and an important investment in the complex or chaos domain arises that causes the entire process to fail.
  • The team has ordered the backlog and a Hippo announces changes to portfolio that they cannot share due to regulatory reasons. (in this situation, the team should ideally be subjected to an NDA and introduced to the privileged information but that is not always possible or desirable).

Sometimes it may be possible to establish an enabling constraint but the organisation cannot establish an economic decision making framework. In contemporary organisations, economic metrics are seen as lagging indicators of success, and other metrics are seen as equally important. These other metrics might be number of customer, activity or lead time. In such an organisation, it might be impossible to land cost of delay as a decision making mechanism. However, establishing the enabling constraint may make it easier to establish an economic decision making framework at a later date… if necessary.

In other words, the team of decision makers need to be able to choose the most appropriate mechanism for ordering the backlog without feeling they are abandoning the process that forms the team.

Final Thought

Only members of the Community of Solutions insist that a particular solution is the best in all contexts, for example insisting that we use Capacity Planning OR Cost of Delay everywhere. Members of the Community of Needs are more comfortable with using different solutions to satisfy a need, for example using Capacity Planning AND Cost of Delay.

Capacity Planning and Cost of Delay are complimentary concepts. Understanding them as separate and independent tools allows us to create more resilient portfolio processes.

* This is a second hand anecdote.

Constraints that Enable

Enabling constraints are a key concept for understanding and managing the Complex domain described by Cynefin. Unfortunately the concept of enabling constraints is poorly understood. Many attempts to provide examples of enabling constraints tend to assign some form of “goodness” to the concept.


What are Enabling Constraints

An excellent distillation of the literature on enabling constraints can be found here.

At the 2017 Cynefin Retreat in Snowdonia (In the shadow of Cynefin), Alicia Juarrero introduced the following properties of enabling constraints:

  1. Enabling constraints are context sensitive.
  2. Enabling constraints force alignment of the agents which leads to resonance and this creates a higher order system.
  3. The higher order system provides feedback to the agents which constrains their behaviour and stablises the higher order system.

This philosophical description of enabling constraints based on biological systems is too abstract for many to grasp so Alicia gave Barnard Cells as a simpler “mechanical” example.

The challenge has been to find examples that relate to Agile Software Development.

The first example

Study of approaches to portfolio prioritisation approaches led to an understanding that Cost of Delay is a governing constraint. It is effective providing the portfolio only contains items whose value is in the obvious and complicated domains. Given that technical debt always needs to be included in a portfolio, SAFE manages this by creating a separate technical backlog. The problem is that the portfolio never aligns. Responsibility for technical debt is delegated to technologists, and responsibility for business prioritisation sits with the business. True alignment within the portfolio never occurs and the decision making is always sub-optimal as an unnecessary division exists within the portfolio.. Technology and Business do not align where the entire investment can be focused on either Business or Technology as required by the context. Investment decisions are focused around the process which is always subject of failure rather than a team that is resilient and able to adapt. By definition, Cost of Delay cannot evolve because it is the end point.

Capacity Planning has a different approach to portfolio prioritisation. In capacity planning, the constraint is much simpler.

All decision makers (key stakeholders) need to come together on a regular basis to strictly order the portfolio backlog based on the (team level) constraints.

This constraint causes alignment. The decision makers need to create an optimal portfolio. Initially they may try to create a portfolio that optimises their own outcome. The constraint of having to do this regularly (typically a quarter) means that they move from a two person single iteration of the prisoner’s dilemma to a multiple person multi-iteration version of the prisoner’s dilemma. The emergent behaviour of the prisoners dilemma is collaboration, which occurs faster if its a multi agent version. It is normal for the system to fail as part of the emergence of collaboration (Storming to norming transition in the Truckman model). In the capacity planning constraint, the failure normally occurs with the prioritisation method which changes from iteration to iteration, allowing the constraint to remain. (From my experience, even detractors of the constraint will defend it as it provides stability to the organisation). If governing constraints are used, when they fail, the entire constraint can fail and the process can fall apart (Chaos).

The higher order system that emerges from the capacity planning constraint is the team of decision makers that focus on the optimal outcome for the portfolio rather than their individual outcomes. This team is resilient to changes in process.

The General Rule

Understanding that capacity planning is an enabling constraint, and cost of delay is a governing constraint, quickly helped me see other examples of enabling constraints.

Scrum done properly is an enabling constraint. The rules of Scrum, especially swarming, create high performing, high trust teams as a higher order system.

Extreme programming done properly is an enabling constraint. The rules of XP, especially pairing, create high socio-technical system as a higher order system. The socio-technical system is a technology system and a team that maintains and develops the system.

Kanban done properly is an enabling constraint with a high trust team as a higher order system.

The Cynefin framework when used for sensemaking (Four corners contextualisation) is an enabling constraint where the higher order system is a distributed cognition system with a shared understanding of the contexy.

The Cynefin Framework when used for categorisation (Butterfly Stamping) is a governing constraint.

In Safe, bringing the whole team together at the PI planning is an enabling constraint.

In Safe, constraining the approach to planning (everyone in the room), and prioritisation (Hippo enabled WSJF) are governing constraints.

Enabling constraints are contextual. Governing constraints are not contextual, they are fixed in nature. Therefore the following are governing constraints:

  1. Cost of Delay
  2. Black and White Photography
  3. A safety harness
  4. Haiku

As a practitioner, I look forward to feedback from experts on where the above is wrong.

Governing Constraints

Where there is no uncertainty, governing constraints are the most effective approach. Where there is no uncertainty, use of enabling constraints is at best inefficient and at worst destabilising, and destructive.

If you are operating in a constrained organisation where every investment must be supported by a business case articulated in economic terms, and where the investments need to be approved by a finance function, then cost of delay is the ideal prioritisation process. Getting stakeholders to form a team to cooperate on prioritising the portfolio is unnecessary and inefficient.

We value Enabling Constraints OVER Governing Constraints

Assigning goodness or preference to enabling or governing constraints is missing the point.

Enabling constraints are better for complex domains.

Governing constraints are better for complicated domains.

Saying enabling constraints are better than governing constraints is like saying fish are better than bicycles. Its all about context.

Thank you to…

For the past year, a small group have been discussing enabling constraints with the intention of better understanding them, and better communicating the concept. I would like to thank Marc Burgauer, Trent Hone, Alicia Juarrero and Jabe Bloom for including me in some of their discussions. Most of my understanding of the subject comes from these discussions and the patient socratic questioning of Marc Burgauer.

I would also like to thank Paul Ader and Andrew Webster, fellow authorised Cynefin trainers, who are working with me to create training material for the Cynefin Wiki.


Extreme Care when using Cost of Delay

Last Tuesday I gave a presentation at Flow Con France. Alain Buzzacaro (@abuzzacaro) took this great photo.

Extreme Care

This section of the presentation started with a short introduction to Cynefin (At the Snowdonia Retreat in October, I became an Authorised Cynefin Trainer). A number of  classes of investment were categorised using the Cynefin framework. (Thank you again to Alain).

Cynefin Classes of Investment

“Regulatory” investments are obvious. If you want to continue a business, you need to comply with the regulations. You either comply with new regulations or divest the building. It is possible to calculate the value of the investment.

“Cost Saving” investments normally involve defined cost savings. Analysis will lead to a defined value. They are complicated.

“User Needs” investments involve identifying the often unexpressed needs of customers and forming a hypothesis about the need. It is then necessary to test those needs. Forming and Testing hypotheses is by definition in the Complex domain. Testing hypotheses will lead to learning. The value of the learning outcome is by definition difficult to value. Disproving a hypothesis has different value to not disproving.

“Technical Debt” investments reduce lead time, the uncertainty surrounding lead time and the the probability of a bug in production. Accurately estimating the benefits in these terms is uncertain, expressing the benefit in economic terms is a double level of uncertainty. As such, these forms of investment require either hypotheses or action.

“Innovation” investments require action. By their very nature, there is no data to form a hypothesis.

Whereas “Regulatory” and “Cost Saving” investments can be expressed in economic terms, “User Needs”, “Technical Debt” and “Innovation” investments are more commonly expressed in non economic terms. They are expressed in value metrics such as number of customers or “engagement”. An example of comparing “User Needs” investments with “Cost Saving” investments might be “Fifteen million new customers in Vietnam” versus “Two million dollars cost saving in the United States”. There is no exchange rate to perform this conversion. In fact, the exchange rate is a pure expression of strategy. What is more important to the organisation, short term cash flow or longer term growth.

In order to perform an economic comparison, the investments must all be expressed in the same economic units. This means that “User Needs”, “Technical Debt” and “Innovation” investments are at a serious disadvantage in any discussion focused on economic comparison.

Cost of Delay is fundamentally based on the concept of economic comparison. Therefore, if your portfolio contains a mixture of “Regulatory” / “Cost Saving” investments and “User Needs” / “Technical Debt” / “Innovation” investments, extreme care must be taken when using Cost Of Delay.


  • GIVEN the portfolio contains a mixture of “Regulatory” / “Cost Saving” investments and “User Needs” / “Technical Debt” / “Innovation” investments
  • WHEN using Cost of Delay
  • THEN Extreme Care must be taken.

A shorter Cynefin explanation is that Cost of Delay is a governing constraint that is appropriate in Complicated situations, but is not appropriate in the Complex or Chaos domain. In order to prioritise a portfolio containing investments in all five domains, you need an enabling constraint… More in the next blog.


Introducing the Agile Gantt Chart

Before I discovered Agile, I was a Project Manager. One of the most useful tools at my disposal was the Gantt chart. I used the Gantt chart to provide focus around the dependencies that needed to be removed. Many Project Managers coming to Agile discover that there is no Gantt chart and struggle without this powerful tool. This need for the Gantt chart provides a powerful opportunity to engage with experienced project managers. An Agile Gantt Chart provides Project Managers with the tool they need whilst at the same time aligning with Agile approaches.


This first post explains how to create an Agile Gantt Chart. In a later post I will describe the why and how to use it, and some of the practicalities of implementing an Agile Gantt Chart report.

An ordered backlog

The first thing required is a backlog ordered by the business and technology ( oh, and technical debt is a business concern so only one backlog. no technical backlogs allowed). This provides the relative priority of each (meta-) backlog item (MBI).

For example

1. MBI-103 – In order to retain “ABC” customers, we have to satisfy the need to do “DEF” by the “GHI” users. We need to test the hypothesis that “solution JKL” or “solution MNO” will satisfy the need to do ‘DEF”.

2. MBI-127 – In order to retain the revenue from business “XYZ”, we need satisfy the need to demonstrate effective control of the market by the regulator. We have to build “Blah”.

3. MBI-006 – In order to increase engagement with “JKL” customers, the have to satisfy the need to do “Stuff” by the “golden” users. A first scaled version of the “Nimrod” prototype solution is required.

SWAG estimates for epics.

It is likely that each MBI will need more than one team to deliver it*. An epic should be created for each team** to store the team’s estimate of the work involved. The estimate is a SWAG or Sweet Wild Assed Guess which means no one can be held accountable for delivering against it. It is simply an indication of the level of effort involved. The units for the SWAG is number of stories. The product owner, a developer and QA should estimate the number of stories they expect the epic to broken down into. They should spend five to ten minutes discussion to come up with the epic based on previous work done by the team. Using story count instead of team week as the unit of measure means that the estimate does not need to be revisited if the team capability changes dramatically such as doubling or halving in size.

For example, our super teams called the Avengers, X-Men and Defenders have provided SWAG estimates for the MBIs as follows:

Agile Gantt Swag Estimates

The trick with SWAG estimates is to be consistently bad at making estimates rather than try to improve them. The worst thing you can do is put more effort into improving them. We now spend ten times more effort coming up with our sweet wild assed guesses is as crazy as it sounds.

Date estimates for teams

Now that we have the SWAGs, we can estimate how long it will take for each team to do their bit. For that we simply work out how many stories the team deliver on average per week, and calculate the elapsed time for each epic by dividing the SWAG by average stories per week.

For simplicity, we assume all teams deliver five stories per week. The reality is that the number delivered will vary greatly per team but that is OK because each team will adjust its SWAG estimate according to the size of story they work with. An epic with a SWAG of 10 stories will take two weeks.

To calculate the expected due date for the MBI for each team, we simply order the epics according to the order of the backlog. We can see that Avengers complete MBI-103, MBI-127 and MBI-006 at the end of weeks two, five and six respectively, and so on.

Agile Gantt Team Backlogs

Agile Gantt Charts


We now filter so that we can look at each MBI on its own. We now have an Agile Gantt Chart for each MBI.


Agile Gantt MBI103


Agile Gantt MBI127


Agile Gantt MBI006

This is a presentation of Agile data that a traditional project manager can relate to and feel comfortable with.

So looking at the Gantt Charts above, you get a point for every issue you can see with the ‘plans’ above or a point for every improvement you can suggest to the plan. You get a bonus point if you give your suggestion a snappy name, and you can double your bonus if the name contains the word “Mapping”. Please leave your entries as comments below.

* In large organisations it is almost impossible for a single team of seven +/- two people to cover the technology and business domain knowledge required to deliver something of value. Where possible, organisation will often create those teams but more likely it is not possible without getting a developer named Kal, Kara or Kent.

** In Jira, an epic is needed for each team due to the fact that it is not possible to store a SWAG estimate for each team against a single epic. This irksomeness will be discussed in a later post.

Agile Coach – Agile Canary

In Victorian mines, the miners would have a Canary in a cage. If any lethal but odourless gases were present, the Canary would die and fall off its perch. On a transformation, your Agile Coach acts as the Canary.


When your organisation embarks on an Agile Transformation, you effectively create a new organisation with a new set of values within the existing one. Workers at the coal face have value in both organisations, however an Agile Coach only has value in the new organisation with it’s new set of values and associated skills and experience.

The surest sign of a healthy transformation is an Agile Coach who is a valued member of the team. Those embracing the new values will constantly reach out the Agile Coach for advice or more often a bit of encouragement before they try something new. The coach will help them understand how they can try the new thing in a safe to fail way, often pushing people to take on a little extra risk and stretch themselves. The value of the coach is their experience working in the new way that allows them to empathise with people trying new things. A coach with lots of qualifications but little or no experience is useful to no one other than the consultancies that sell them. In fact, good coaches tend to have very few formal Agile qualifications. A good Agile Coach will have an extensive knowledge of many agile practices and a solid network of other coaches that they can call upon when faced with something unfamiliar. This is a reason that home grow Agile Coaches need to be sent to conferences where they can build a network. The question should be “Who did you meet?” rather than “What did you learn?”.

I know a number of coaches that have been involved in “Transformation” projects where the environment has been toxic to Agile Coaches. The coaches are not valued as their experience and knowledge is not valued. Some transformations are outright hostile to Agile Coaches.

  • One coach was “uninvited” to meetings where they could add value, meaning they were invited but when they arrived, their entry to the meeting room was barred.
  • One coach was told to their face “We do not need any Agile Coaches here” when they turned up for a meeting.
  • One coach was replaced by a tame Agile Coach from the software consultancy, someone with lots of qualifications on their LinkedIn profile…
  • One coach was threatened with physical violence by a software vendor because they dared to call into question the capability of the vendor’s people, the ones with all the qualifications.

In all cases like this, the coach felt unvalued, preferring to be in an organsation that might value them rather than one that definitely did not.

As an executive responsible for an Agile Transformation, you should “Go to the Gemba” to see where the work is done. It might be a complete car crash but if the Canary is happily working with the team, then there is probably movement in the right direction. If everything is “perfect” but the Canary is disengaged, chances are you have problems with no movement or movement in the wrong direction.

The ultimate test of the effectiveness of a transformations effectiveness will be the metrics… business metrics, lead time and quality, however if you want an early indication about whether things are heading in the right direction, “Go to the gemba” and check on the Canary.


Executives and Purpose

Normal employees of an organisation have a responsibility to fulfill the purpose of the organisation. Executives have the same responsibility, however in addition, they have the responsibility to ensure that the organisation has a purpose, make that purpose clear, and ensure that the organisation is aligned around that purpose.

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Some executives take an autocratic approach to determining the purpose of the organisation meaning that they decide. Some executives take a facilitation based approach, seeking to use the combined wisdom of the organisation. Regardless of the approach, the responsibility for ensuring that an organisation has the right purpose lies with the executives.

Herzberg’s classic HBR article identified that there are hygiene factors which need to be met otherwise an individual will leave the organisation, and factors that motivate them. Dan Pink’s “Drive” states that individuals in an organisation need Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose to be motivated. Successful organisations compete for high performing, highly motivated individuals as they understand that they give them the edge in the massively competitive marketplace. For high performing motivated individuals, autonomy, mastery and purpose are not motivators, they are hygiene factors. If high performing motivated individuals do not have autonomy, mastery and purpose, they will leave and go to somewhere that they do. Autonomy and mastery are local phenomena within an organisation. It is possible for a leader to create a bubble in which their team have autonomy and can achieve mastery. Purpose however requires the support and commitment of executives.

The worst possible situation for an organisation is where they are meeting the hygiene factors of their employees but their employees are not motivated. No one will leave but they are not motivated to learn or improve their skills. An organisation like this may appear to be healthy but has no long term future.

Purpose and Identity

Part of the Identity of a individual is their position in a network. We have an identity in our family, with our friends, in our community, and in our work. As an individual, we have an identity in many different networks and one of the most important things about our identity is its “value” to the network, or self worth. Self worth is how much we perceive our value in total. We will gravitate towards networks in which we are most valued, or where we can gain knowledge and/or experience that will increase our value in other networks.

The purpose of the organisation determines the value of our activity. If the purpose of our organisation is to create cheap cars that are cheap to run, then it will not value our efforts to build the fastest car possible… unless that effort results in learning and insight about how to make cheap cars that are cheap to run. A person with expertise on creating fast cars is likely to leave a job in a company that makes cheap cars and move to one where their knowledge and experience is valued.

So purpose is another way of describing the values of the company. As Dave Snowden says “101 Anthropology states that as soon as you write your values down, you lose them”. This means that the executives as the guardians of the organisations rules are also the guardians of the stated and unstated (written and unwritten) purpose of the organisation. This means that that they need to give energy and approval to activities that are aligned with the (stated and unstated) purpose of the organisation and remove energy from activities that are counter to the purpose of the organisation. Executives need to increase the value of individuals in the network that are doing the right thing. Executives need to be what Derek Siver’s calls a first followers. They need to understand the constraints that mean individuals that are not aligned with the purpose of the organisation. Once understood, these constraints (often incentives) need to be modified so alignment occurs. This is particularly import for transformation efforts.

The purpose of an organisation determines its identity and the identity (including value) of everyone involved in the organisation.

Identity and Transformations

Every organisation engaged in a (delete as appropriate) [ Digital/DevOps/Agile/Lean/Spotify ] [ Transformation/Improvement/Make Better ] [ Programme/Initiatve ] needs to understand that the transformation involves changing the identity and purpose of the organisation, and the identity and value of everyone within the organisation. It is normal that the desire to change the purpose of the organisation conflicts with the desire of individuals within the organisation to maintain their value and hence identity. It is vital that executives engage in the transformation and create clear statements about purpose (value), reward individuals that are aligned with the purpose, and sideline individuals that are not aligned with the new purpose.

So who are the individuals that are most going to resist a change in identity? Those individuals that have the most the to lose. In other words, individuals that are perceived as high value in the current organisation but will either know they will have lower value in the new organisation, or even worse, are uncertain whether they will have a lower value in the new organisation.

It is important for executives involved in an organisation to help those individuals understand that if they move to the new organisation, they will be more valued than before regardless of how effective they are are in the new organisation. It is important  that the executive helps them understand that if they oppose the move to the new organisation, they will have no value to the organisation.

The worst thing that an executive can do is do nothing. They allow individuals who oppose the change to maintain a high value role in the new organisation. This sends a clear message that the new organisational purpose (values) is not actually valued.

The Role of Executives in a Transformation

The first responsibility of the Executives in a company undergoing a transformation is to create a vision for the new transformed organisation. This is another way of saying they need to ensure the purpose for the new transformed organisation is clearly articulated. An important part of that is to ensure that appropriate metrics (measures) are articulated to indicate a successful transformation.

Second, the executives need to communicate the purpose (and metrics) to the whole organisation. This allows people to opt in to the new organisation at a point that is comfortable to them. In other words when they feel their identity in the new organisation will be more valuable than their identity in the existing organisation. This is a continuous process, and the awkward badly formed communication should gradually improve over time as more and more people join in.

Third, the executives need to engage with those entering the new organisation, ensuring that they are clear on the purpose of the new organisation whether stated or unstated. The purpose of this engagement is to connect with the people in the new organisation so that they can reach out the executives when they need to without having to go through any escalation process. The most effective mechanism I’ve experienced for this engagement is Dan Mezick’s Open Space Agility.

In traditional organisations, executives see a rose tinted view of reality. Everything they see has been filtered through several layers of excel and/or powerpoint. The filtering protects them as much as the people doing the filtering. They have plausible deniability. In the transformed organisation, the executive needs to be able to see an unfiltered representation of the organisation. Rather than use that representation to make decisions, they should use it to identify those place where they should “Go to the Gemba”. The executives should “Go to the Gemba” to support those individuals who’s actions are alligned with the new purpose, and also those who’s actions are not aligned with the new purpose. In addition, they should go to the Gemba to see the reality of any project that is struggling to see how they can assist them.

This is the fourth responsibility of the executive. To “Go to the Gemba”, “To go to the place where the work is done”, to increase the value of those identities that are aligned with the new purpose, and diminish the value of those that are not.

The fifth responsibility is to “Go to the Gemba” to assist. To bypass the escalation process by directly observing the constraints and prioritising resources to resolving the constraint.

Executives are the guardians of the purpose of the organisation. Their responsibility is to actively engage and support the organisation as it moves towards its new purpose. Their responsibility is to “Go to the Gemba” so that they can see reality rather live a life of contentment behind rose tinted spreadsheets and presentations.