BDD Part 4: Don’t bite off more than you can chew

  • In Part 1 we saw that aligning individual goals under a common vision using OKRs was one way of fighting silo mentality.
  • In Part 2 we saw that to pursue higher levels of flow efficiency you must actively look for ways to reduce superfluous work.
  • In Part 3 we saw how Patrick and his colleagues were able to agree on how they should approach hiring using the ideas of parts 1 and 2.

This time it is Bill’s turn to bring new ideas to the Operations Meeting.

The story

Bill, IT director of companyXYZ, is attending the quarterly Operations Meeting. He is meeting with the CEO (Alex) and other department directors (Patrick, Hanna and Hugh) to discuss the needs of the company for the upcoming quarter. In these meetings, each director used to set out their individual department’s objectives and asks for new additions to their teams if needed. Last time was different.

Last time the meeting ended with an alignment of every department’s individual goals under a common vision. Even so, the situation at the team level did not really improve. Bill has talked to his teams and feels there is still something missing from what Patrick proposed last time. He wants to raise the issue with the others during the Operations Meeting.

The agenda for today is to review the outcomes of the previous quarter and set the goals for the upcoming quarter.

The meeting

A couple of minutes after the meeting starts the team has produced a summary of the outcomes achieved during the previous quarter:
- They were able to meet the hiring goal. Still, the key results don’t look as good as expected. Employee satisfaction is still low.
- Completing some projects required considerable effort from some teams.
- Some projects could not be completed on time. Chasing emerging opportunities resulted in reprioritisation and extra work. That effort could have been used to deliver.

Using that as input for the next part of the meeting, the team worked together to define a new set of objectives for the upcoming quarter.

Example of alignment between individual goals

“Good job”, said Alex, “This exercise was considerably shorter than last time. You’re getting good at this!”

“The only thing left to do is to decide what to do first”, said Bill.

“What do you mean?” said Hanna. “We know what we want to achieve as a company and how each department fits into that picture. With that, everyone here should know what projects we need to tackle during the quarter.”

“That’s right, we do”, said Bill, “Even so, I believe that some of what Patrick said last time still held true during this past quarter. Our individual goals were aligned, sure, but we still ended up competing between us to reach them. Why do you think that was?”

“Dependencies?”, asked Hugh.

“Dependencies between projects can be challenging, sure”, granted Bill, “but that is not exactly what I have in mind.”

“No, not between projects”, said Hugh. “Maybe ‘dependencies’ is not the right word. What I meant to say was that some projects or some tasks depended on someone being available to do them.”

“Exactly!” exclaimed Bill. “That is correct, Hugh, thank you. Still, availability is closely related to what I believe is the real issue.”

“We ran out of time so we became anxious”, said Alex, “I noticed a bit of tension during the final weeks of the quarter.”

“And why did we run out of time?”, asked Bill, “I don’t remember overcommitting, do you? Last quarter we had to collaborate to help Patrick and his team, and we adjusted our scopes accordingly. What happened, then?”

“We started working?” asked Hanna, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re trying to say.”

“Indeed, we did start working”, conceded Bill. “And we did it like we always do: we started all projects at the same time.”

“Why is that a problem?”, asked Alex, “The sooner we start something, the sooner we finish it, right?”

“That may be true when we have to deal with a single issue”, said Bill. “But, Patrick, what happened to some steps in your process when you had to deal with many open positions at the same time?”

“The steps, and the overall process, took longer to complete”, said Patrick. “I think I see your point. When we wanted to fill an open position, we reduced the number of ongoing items in the process in order to finish faster.”

“What you are saying”, continued Patrick, “is that we need to approach projects in a similar way.”

“That’s right!”, exclaimed Bill, “I believe that starting many projects from our portfolio at the same time is having a negative impact on our teams. I can try to give you an example of what I mean.”

He paused for a minute to gather his thoughts.

“OK”, he began, “I think I have the perfect example. I want you to consider the team of Specialists. If I remember correctly, last quarter we all needed them for one or more of our ongoing projects.” He turned to Patrick again. “Do you remember the conversation we had a couple of weeks ago?”

“The one about the team that was close to burn-out?” said Patrick. “Yes, I remember. Is this them?”

“I’m afraid so”, said Bill.

He approached the whiteboard and started to draw.

“Although they are a part of IT, Specialists provide different services to the entire company. The dotted lines represent that relationship.”

Specialists provide services to the entire company

Bill turned to face his colleagues. “Before we were saying that some of our portfolio initiatives started but took too long to finish, correct?”

The rest nodded.

“And we all agree that in order to move forward we needed time from Specialists, correct?”

The rest nodded again.

“In that case, starting all projects at the same time may have been a mistake”, Bill continued. “There are few Specialists in the company. Filling up their time with many projects at the same time has caused some availability issues. As a result, some projects were late, others barely finished, and others are still waiting to be finished this quarter.”

“In other words”, Bill said after a brief pause, “Specialists are a bottleneck. It is not as bad as it sounds, believe me. We just need to use the bottleneck to our advantage. We need to make strategic use of the Specialists.”

We need to make strategic use of the bottleneck

“What exactly do you have in mind?” asked Alex.

“I believe we don’t need to start work on all portfolio initiatives in parallel. Instead, I propose to focus on achieving the outcomes of the portfolio initiatives that are most aligned with our OKR for the quarter.”

“What makes you think this approach will work?” asked Hugh.

“I’ll try to explain using the case of a single Specialist, Sarah, during the past quarter, as an example” said Bill. “Sarah’s utilisation was divided between projects like this:
- Project A — 15% of her time — Reporting to Hugh
- Project B — 20% of her time — Reporting to Hanna
- Project C — 30% of her time — Reporting to me
- Project D — 10% of her time — Reporting to Patrick
With only 75% utilisation, one should expect Sarah to be quite comfortable, right?”

He didn’t wait for a reply. Bill went on. “Last time Patrick explained that the more work we have to do, the more work we need to generate to manage it. I call this superfluous work because it shouldn’t be necessary under different circumstances.” He started drawing on the whiteboard again. “Because we started all projects at the same time, there were many sources of superfluous work:”

Example of work distribution between different projects for Sarah. All of them happened simultaneously, so there were many sources of superfluous work

“These meetings and interruptions were not neatly scheduled”, Bill continued, “Sarah had to answer questions from two or three projects simultaneously. Also, I’m afraid I had to pull rank from time to time to remind everyone of her 30% commitment. If you remember, that resulted in more meetings between us to figure out Sarah’s utilisation.”

Bill saw they were getting it, so he decided to add something else.

“We are lucky Sarah is such a great professional. Imagine that we were forced to hire more people to handle part of Sarah’s work. Imagine the additional work that Sarah would have needed to generate in order to put everyone up to speed.”

He made another drawing. “In the end, Sarah was so overworked she could barely manage the amount of work she had to do, which was mostly superfluous in nature because all projects were happening at the same time.”

The overworked Specialist, Sarah. She can barely manage the amount of work she has to do, which is mostly superfluous because all the portfolio initiatives have been started at the same time

“I think I understand what you mean”, said Alex. “By making sure Specialists are working on fewer projects at the same time, the amount of superfluous work will be much lower. Thus, their time can be used much more efficiently. How can we do this?”

Alex, Hanna, Hugh, Patrick, and Bill, discussing how to address the problem

The team pondered the question for a couple of minutes.

“I believe we already have something in place that can help us”, said Hanna. “We could use the weekly meetings we started doing last quarter to discuss how projects are progressing and what the next steps should be. That way we can help Specialists focus their efforts on what is most important and change course with minimal impact if we need to.”

“That sounds good, Hanna”, said Bill. “We will not get rid of superfluous work entirely, but at least we can help our teams be more productive. I only used Specialists as an example, but I believe we can all benefit from having more focus. What do you think?”

“I like it”, said Hugh. “We still have to figure out the specifics but it makes sense.”

“Hugh is right”, said Patrick. “We will need to work together if we want to focus on fewer projects at the same time. This means each of us needs to understand that these projects are no longer mine or yours. Instead, projects become ours.”

“Good point, Patrick”, said Hanna. “Working as a team means putting the success of the group before the success of the individual. We were able to align our goals to have the whole company rowing in the same direction. Now, we need to row in sync!”

“Once again, I’m sold”, said Alex. “I am very proud of this team. Let’s get to work!”

With fewer ongoing initiatives the work of Specialists (and everyone else involved in the projects) becomes much more manageable. There still will be some superfluous work, but most of the available capacity will be used for value-adding work

Effective portfolio management is the key to organisational agility

We need the right people working on the right things at the right time

The pursuit of flow efficiency and agility starts with effective portfolio management.

Effective portfolio management requires strategic alignment of the entire organisation under a common goal. To do this, organisations need to have the right people, working on the right things, at the right time. This strategic utilisation of resources requires having fewer ongoing initiatives. Fewer ongoing initiatives result in less superfluous work. Less superfluous work means individuals, teams and organisations make more productive use of their time.

As a result, organisations can achieve strategic outcomes faster than before and can adapt better to changes in their environment. Thus, effective portfolio management is the key to achieving organisational agility.

Portfolio management is an agile endeavor, requiring adaptability and openness to change to achieve one of its major justifications: the ability of the organization to be adaptable enough to survive the constant evolutions of its business environment and potentially create an environment surrounding it in which that organization would occupy a leadership position, ensuring development, growth, and sustainability. These benefits can only be achieved by obtaining a certain level of organizational agility, meaning introducing that agile type of mindset and functioning within the very governance structure, processes systems, and even culture of that organization, gaining precisely that flexibility and adaptability.
Organizational agility is the ability of the organization to pursue its strategic vision and realize it while anticipating the evolution of its business environment and adapt its strategic roadmap and related governance to this evolution. In other words, organizational agility will be the ability of the organization to introduce change when and how it’s necessary to secure the achievement of its objectives and its business sustainability. Organizational agility, more than a pillar of portfolio management, is the outcome of its proper application.

Olivier Lazar, “The Four Pillars of Portfolio Management”

Endnote

People working in organisations with a focus on resource efficiency tend to be overworked. As a result, some teams or individuals become bottlenecks in the system and strategic initiatives cannot move forward as needed.

Aligning silos under a common vision using OKRs can help prioritise the work so that teams and individuals can focus on what is most important to the organisation. A higher focus on strategic outcomes should reduce the number of ongoing initiatives at the portfolio level. Reducing the number of ongoing initiatives dramatically reduces the need for superfluous work, thus increasing flow efficiency and organisational agility.

If an organisation wants to pursue flow efficiency and, ultimately, organisational agility, managers must work as a team to limit the number of strategic initiatives running in parallel. Not only that, the chosen initiatives should be the ones best suited to help the company achieve its strategic outcomes.

Thank you for reading.

Cheers!

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Engineer, Agile Coach, non-stop learner. I love teaching. I recently discovered that I enjoy writing. https://www.linkedin.com/in/alvaro-de-la-serna-martinez/

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Álvaro de la Serna Martínez

Álvaro de la Serna Martínez

Engineer, Agile Coach, non-stop learner. I love teaching. I recently discovered that I enjoy writing. https://www.linkedin.com/in/alvaro-de-la-serna-martinez/

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