Foster Agile: Not Gonna Happen

Part of the Foster Agile series.

A typical scenario: I have planned too much work for a work weekend with my step-dad.  The evening of the first day, we are discussing what we will do the second day.

Step-Dad: What’s the plan for tomorrow?
Me: I’m thinking we finish pouring the concrete, set the stones, finish the other stones in the sand, and then get the screenings in.
Step-Dad: Not gonna happen.
Me: You think getting the screenings in is ambitious?
Step-Dad: I think getting just the concrete poured and the stones set in that is ambitious.

Invariably, my step-dad is right. We get what he expected done, and barely that. I could chalk this up to his great experience, but there’s another element here: the courage to recognize the hard truth of limitations. It is this experience which has underscored for me the lean principle recognizing the waste of wishful thinking. With our newly revised plan, we plod along, a clear and achievable (not necessarily easy!) goal in our sights.

What’s the big deal? Can’t you just take on more and stop when you run out of time? Yes, but you lose all sorts of advantages.

The Finish Line Surge. If I am on step 98 out of 100 with a tiny bit of time left, I am more likely to push to make the deadline than if I am on step 98 out of 150.

Quality of Goals. When you are honest with yourself about what you can achieve in a day, you usually come face-to-face with the reality that you won’t get as much done as you hoped. This gives you a sense of just how precious the time is. Acute awareness of the goal’s cost in turn increases the pressure to make that goal really count: high-value, high-priority. If you aren’t setting realistic goals, all you are really doing is making a wish list, and what’s the point of that?

Every Minute Counts. Imagine you are working on a task. You have two ways to do it. Both ways are good quality, both meet the minimum requirements, both achieve the overall purpose set out. One of them, though, is the “gilding the lily” option: a little fancier design, a little more extensible than needed, a little cooler than necessary. If you are on step 98 out of 100, right before the end of the day, and if doing the extra work means you fall a little bit short, the cost of your decision is very hard to miss. If instead you are on step 98 of 352, it is much easier to spend the extra time on the more expensive option without realizing the impact this will have on your overall goal. In effect, you are revising your goal unconsciously. One caveat: as you walk the line of just good enough, trying not to step into the realm of gilding the lily, make sure you don’t overcompensate and fall into the trap of cutting corners on the other side. Mind those quality standards!

Greater Productivity. I am going to stray into heavy speculation with this one: I’d suggest that you actually work faster if you take on less. When I was in college, I did a work study job in a law library. My job involved two tasks: (1) helping the very few people who came to the desk for help, and (2) filing updates to laws. The amount of the latter task varied. I noticed that on days where there was more than I could possibly do in my six-hour shift, I dragged through, getting almost nothing done. However, on days where there was the right amount or even slightly too much, I flew through it with relish. Was it the promise of getting a little free time if I finished the work earlier? Was it the pleasure I (and I suspect many others) derive from finishing tasks? Either way: a reasonable load of work led to much greater productivity than an impossible load. Maybe this is true for others, too.

Sustainability. This also ties into the sustainable pace aspect of Agile. If you cultivate and listen to the voice in your head saying “not gonna happen”, you avoid setting yourself or your team up to fail.  It’s great to set ambitious goals to push yourself (think stretch goals, OKRs, etc.), but if they are flat out impossible, it’s counterproductive.

Try this: set yourself a goal for the day. At the end of the day, ask yourself if you met the goal.  If you met it, great; if not, ask what made you fall short. Try again the next day. Once you are regularly accomplishing your daily goals, ask yourself what you are doing differently in order to meet them. Then, keep setting daily goals, but set goals for the week as well. Repeat the same pattern at this larger scale.  What does learning to meet these make you change?

One note. As you can guess, I apply this thinking to the goals one sets in Scrum: commitment at daily stand-up and sprint goals. I’ve often heard people complain that Scrum’s sprint deadlines are arbitrary. Well, they are. And that’s a good thing. With every action, you are not only choosing to do one thing but choosing not to do myriad other things. By ignoring these opportunity costs, you are ignoring the full cost of your actions.  Are you rich enough in dollars to walk into a store and buy something without even looking at the price tag? Are you rich enough in time to take action without knowing how much it’s costing you?