In April 2010, the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull’s dramatic eruption caused an ash cloud that kept the travel industry in its vicious hands for several days. The closure of the european airspace resulted in 100,000 cancelled flights…
Seven years later, one morning in March, two meetings take place.
Meeting 1: Replanning of Enterprise Project X
Project X has been running for more than two years and has reached a serious state. The implementation involves 10+ teams and an external vendor. Not only are the budget, plans and scope dark red from a traditional PMO RAG status view, but energy and motivation are drained, teams are exhausted, and project management is lost.
No one really wants to be in this meeting and definitely not in the project anymore. Every topic spawns negative, unconstructive argumentation, every line than can be misinterpreted gets misinterpreted. The question of roles and responsibilities is brought up again and again.
Project management tries in vain to get a commitment to something nobody believes in
Meeting 2: Finding a Solution to Large Technical Debt for System Y
A business-critical system has a large technical debt. Three teams inherited the debt from a large program and have a shared ownership (meaning each team has been hoping another team will someday deal with the problem). Paying off the debt has been pushed too long with increasing cost as a consequence. The business wants fast development of new features but this technical debt is holding the teams back.
This meeting starts with two teams offering to take ownership of a larger piece of the system in order to off-load the other teams and also to be able to faster implement a new solution. In fact, one team spent the evening before to test a new idea that could replace a large nasty component with a simple modern service. The second team, delighted and encouraged by the first team’s approach, elaborates the idea and offers to get to work right away.
Were these two meetings really in the same company? I ask myself.
Leadership, Motivation and Enterprise Engagement
This is not about methods and not about the ever so criticised project form. This is about leadership, about creating a shared true vision and clear goal and then trusting and supporting the right people to find the best solutions.
Usually you get the engagement and result you deserve.
Delegate responsibility for leading complex business initiatives to external management and vendors and sit back, what do you expect? Someone to blame is all you get.
The Missing WIP Limit
Limiting wip, work in progress, is one of the five core properties of the Kanban method.
I think the most common “finding” or wish from the different kinds of operation reviews I’m in is “Can we just focus on fewer things?”. Development teams often say they can accomplish almost anything in 2-3 months…. “if and only if we could focus on this one feature”.
On a team level I think there’s a quite clear, if maybe not straight forward, way to work with WIP Limit. In the cluster of seven teams where I work, three teams are mob-programming, pushing the idea of limited WIP to the limit :). With almost half of the teams then working on basically one thing it’s quite easy for stakeholders to get an overview of what’s going on.
Our teams work in domains, each domain having a “strategic roadmap”. Balancing initiatives in this road map with team capacity is the next level.
Then there’s the portfolio level, where projects are born and funded. Hopefully the project smoothly gets merged with the strategic roadmap but unfortunately some projects still try to sneak in the backdoor. Maybe they are lured by the cunning PMO KPI “Time from idea until a project is started” (definitely a leading KPI since when it improves you know for sure that trouble will come).
On an individual, personal level there is monotasking, also about focusing on the right things.
But what about the enterprise level? How will we review and improve that? And this is beyond IT and software development. Because what often happens is that the same people needed to own or lead in our development are the same people needed for other initiatives or just daily business. So we end up splitting business people like resources into pieces that can be allocated to different tasks. Or even worse, assign external contractors to key business roles.
Enterprise Engagement and WIP Limit 1
I do observe from time to time what could be the closest thing to WIP limit 1 on enterprise level. Guess when? Well, it’s when there is a dramatic crisis like Eyjafjallajökull’s ash cloud. That’s when that one top priority is shared across the enterprise. That’s when no roles, responsibilities or policies are ever discussed. That’s when creativity has no limit and miracles happen.
Of course, we can’t work like we’re in the middle of a crisis every day. But maybe we can try to define our goals in a way that is so clear and inspiring that they, like a crisis, magically engage and align people.