Predictability in Software Development – Part III

In Part I and Part II of this series, I challenged the popular perspective on predictability in software (product) development and suggested that if an organization needs to respond rapidly to the changes in its ecosystem, it needs to value adaptability over predictability at least “in the large”.  However if innovation is not critical, then valuing predictability over adaptability may be the better thing to do.

What role (if any) does predictability play in product development?  This is especially important because – as mentioned in the first post of this series – many people in positions of significant authority demand predictability from their teams.

Even though it would seem that I’ve spoken against predictability, I do believe that there is often a need for teams to be predictable however I just consider this need to be predictable in the small.  Teams that are predictable in the small consistently complete about the same amount of work over a series of short time periods. Candidly, “short time periods” is dependent on your strategic and operational approaches to addressing business opportunities.  As a rule of thumb, however, I recommend that ‘small’ be 4 weeks or less.

For example, let’s say that a team forecasts the completion of ten items each iteration over the course of four two-week iterations and then has the following results:

Forecasted Delivered
Iteration 1 10 8
Iteration 2 10 11
Iteration 3 10 9
Iteration 4 10 9

Even though the team never delivered exactly ten items, we can see that they completed about the same amount of work in each iteration.  A basic understanding of variation will help us understand that the team exhibits predictability.

But wait a second, this seems to be all about outputs and I thought we were all about outcomes?  Actually we care about both outcomes and outputs and even though we value outcomes over outputs, we know that our outputs are needed for our desired outcomes to be realized.  So, understanding how much work we can complete in the small can help us determine what outcomes can be achieved in the small.

What practices can an organization and their teams adopt in order to help them be predictable in the small? Here are three:

Bite Small, Chew Fast

As a team, focus on value adding items that can be completed in a couple of days. Use techniques such as INVEST (for user stories) to decompose large initiatives into small chunks of value.

Less Is More

Take an essentialist approach to how much work the team takes on.  Less is often more. Minimize the amount of work that is progress.  Team members with different skills should collaborate on work items with the goal of finishing the work items as quickly as is possible.

Minimize Process Loss

Ivan Steiner came up with the equation AP = PP  – PL; that is, the actual productivity of a group equals its potential productivity minus process losses.  Process losses are those things that prevent our teams from being as productive as they could be.  They dampen the good we could potentially do.

Teams need to take the time to reflect on the things that are negatively impacting their performance and then address those things with both rigor and discipline.

(To be fair, these three things are good for any Agile team to pay attention to regardless of whether they have predictability demands or not)

The Conclusion of the Matter

And yet with all this talk about predictability, I’d be remiss if I didn’t make observations about predictability and the potential unintended consequences that arise from pursuing it in an unbridled manner:

  1. Describing knowledge work teams (especially product development teams) as factories or engines needs to be done with care.  Software development teams are not machines that are executing repetitive or pre-programmed activities.  Innovation means discovery.
  2. Just because a team is predictable doesn’t mean they are high performing or that they are delivering value. (Subject of a future post).
  3. Predictability, even in the small, is often at odds with innovation and creativity.  If you are challenging your teams to be creative and innovative and also demanding high levels of predictability from them, something will have to give.  Eventually.

So after three posts on predictability, where have we landed?  Are we adaptable in the large? Are we predictable in the small?  If you’re part of a real Agile organization, then adaptability and predictability are characteristics that your organizational operating model needs to support.  Its critical that leaders provide their teams with clarity on the business landscape and guidance how they need to balance the attributes of adaptability and predictability in software (product) development.


About Ebenezer

culture hack. contrarian. change artiste. speaker. writer. silo-connector. entrepreneur. totally human. ff at your own risk. :-)
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