You can’t predict the future, but you can shape it

Skyscanner uses current and future reality trees from Theory of Constraints to grow and you can too

By Suzanne Morrison

How to use Reality Trees for a Growth organisation

We can’t predict the future and in many ways I’m glad about that. However, when we face complex problems in organisations, we have the opportunity to use logical thinking to analyse these problems and initiate changes that will increase the chances of the future unfolding in the way we want to.

At Skyscanner we have experienced massive growth, from three founders in 2003, to over 900 people across 10 global offices. This comes with growing pains. What worked well yesterday is painful today and will be broken tomorrow.

In a growing and changing organisation logical thinking can help to shape the organisation in the way that we want. At Skyscanner we’ve been applying tools from the Theory of Constraints toolset for over three years and it’s helped us to organise ourselves better, streamline processes and ultimately deliver value to our travellers faster.

Is improvement change?

Eli Goldratt has a famous quote “Any improvement is change, but not every change is an improvement”. I like this quote as it can be easy to make changes, but often our changes don’t have any impact at all. Or, they may even make things worse. A local change with a positive impact can often have a detrimental impact on the wider system (for example optimising a team, in a way that negatively impacts the wider department).

When people think about the Theory of Constraints (TOC), they usually think about constraints, aka bottlenecks. However, there are a whole set of other tools known as Goldratt’s TOC thinking processes that help us to think about:

  • What to change
  • What to change to
  • How to change

Current Reality Trees and undesirable effects

One of the most powerful tools in this toolset is the current reality tree (CRT). This tool is a bit like the ‘5 Whys’ tool from Lean, but on steroids. It prevents you from simply addressing the symptoms of a problem and forces you to understand the root cause so that you can make the right change.

It’s quite simple to use this tool. Just start by identifying your undesirable effects (UDEs). These UDEs are the first sign that something is amiss in your system. They are the things that are affecting your throughput, or preventing you from reaching your goal. Examples of UDEs are “we are not hiring fast enough” or “our release cycle is too long” or “we are not attracting enough new users”.

Your UDEs form the top of your current reality tree and once you have these you can start working your way down, asking the question “why?” or “what is causing this?” and build a chain of cause and effect until you reach the root cause.

You can see a very simplified structure of a tree below. You have the undesirable effects at the top, followed by multiple layers of intermediate effects, until finally you reach the root cause(s).

A simplified structure of a reality tree

Sometimes it is difficult to know when you’ve reached the root cause. It’s best to stop before you have reached causes that are completely out with your control. For example, I could continue to ask “why?” for any problem until I got to “the creation of the planet”, but there’s not much that I can do to address that root cause!

Current reality trees help you to visualise the chain of cause and effect and make sure that you are addressing the right problem. They can also help you to explain the problem to other people in the organisation so that they have a shared understanding of the problem and buy into the change. One colleague once told me that she felt so good after creating the current reality tree with me as it was such a relief to get all the unresolved thoughts about the problem out of her head and on to paper. That benefit alone justifies the time taken to build the tree.

Once you have identified your root cause(s) the next step is to build a future reality tree (FRT). This tree looks very similar in structure to the current reality tree, but instead of undesirable effects at the top of the tree you have desirable effects. At the bottom of the tree, instead of root causes you have injections. Injections are possible solutions or actions that may change the course of the future, address the root causes, and eliminate the undesirable effects.

Future reality trees

Similar to current reality trees, future reality trees help you to visualise the chain of cause and effect, but they also have a more powerful feature. Once you’ve built an FRT, you can ask the question “if we made this change, what could go wrong?”. This is easy to do — just get a few colleagues in a room and ask them for their opinion. I’ve never been disappointed with the volume of suggestions that I get within a few minutes of asking this question!

You then have a choice. If an injection could cause another undesirable effect, you can choose to:

  1. Not go ahead with that injection
  2. Go ahead with the injection and live with the negative consequences (they may be easy to live with)
  3. Trim the negative branch by injecting something else to eliminate that problem

More resources

It’s hard to do justice to the Reality Trees techniques in a short blog post, but if you are interested in learning more, take a look at:

Here are the slides from the workshop that Laz Allen and I delivered at the Lean Agile Scotland conference. You may also like this Skyscanner Growth blog post I wrote on The 5 dysfunctions of a team.

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About the author

My name is Suzanne and I’m an Agile Coach at Skyscanner. On a typical day at Skyscanner I can be found running Lean and Agile training courses, helping new squads and tribes to start up and continuously improve, or using TOC techniques to find root causes and improve flow. I live in Edinburgh with my husband and spend most of my spare time travelling to different countries, planning travel to different countries or experimenting with new food in the kitchen. This year so far I’ve visited Miami, the Bahamas, Portugal, Russia, the Baltics (on a cruise) and I’ll be ending this year on a high note, returning to South Africa, where I spent my honeymoon 10 years ago.

Suzanne Morrison, Skyscanner