Close the Chasm

Tom Howlett
Dec 28, 2019 · 4 min read

It’s killing your value

My work starts with listening, and the story I hear is often a tragedy. The business teams frustrate the development teams. The development team frustrate the business teams. A chasm forms where respect, understanding and trust withers. Crucial collaboration sinks into the void. Value creation slows to a crawl. Frustration runs riot.

This plotline is avoidable. The story should be a rousing quest — biz and dev teams standing side by side in search of value.

Why does the chasm appear, how do we close it and how do we create organisations that avoid it ever forming? But before we get into practicalities lets start with some helpful principles to help our heroes on their quest:

  • The only thing under your control is your thoughts and actions — other people aren’t
  • Once you blame others for your frustration, you’ve lost your power to act
  • Don’t get frustrated by things you can’t control

So why are our biz teams frustrated? I often hear that progress is too slow, estimates are too high and the software is too buggy. It doesn’t solve all the problems, is hard to use and worst of all lacks the “wow factor”. In short, the biz teams believe the devs are too slow to deliver value. At which point I’m politely asked to go and sort the dev team out.

But when I talk to the devs I’m told that they’re stifled by the business. Experts are not available when needed. They are asked to build solutions that they doubt will work and they’re rushed (sacrificing quality). The devs are unsure how to create value but are being told to do it faster anyway. And so we enter a cycle of blame that forms the chasm.

When we dig deeper into why devs are struggling to deliver enough value, we unearth a multitude of reasons leading us to a common root cause. For example:

The development team has lost James, one of their best developers

Who was disengaged

Because of the technical debt they created

Caused by the rush to deliver lots of features

Because the current features didn’t solve real problems

Because the developers made assumptions that weren’t right

Because they didn’t understand their users’ problems

Because the business people didn’t work with them

Or help bring them closer to the user

Or help them test their assumptions.

Whatever the variation, the root cause lies in neither the biz or dev teams. It’s the lack of collaboration between the two. Frustration and blame creates the chasm that amplifies the problem. I can’t ‘fix’ the dev or the biz problem because it’s a collaboration problem.

At this stage, I remind everyone that: “You can’t change others, You only have the power to think and act yourself. When you act together with a common purpose (AKA collaboration) you will solve your problem”. We can boil our solution down to: “Biz and devs work together to discover a solution to the customer problem and to build it with care”. The simplest and most effective way to do that is with a cross-functional product team. If companies start a product development effort with a complete product team they can avoid the chasm ever forming. The sooner you start, the less painful side effects you’ll experience.

But when you stick people together the collaboration doesn’t automatically happen. It takes some time for the new team to form so I run activities that speed up the process. Here are some potent examples to try:

Value Proposition Mapping: If you’ve never done this, do it now and test your assumptions in the next steps. If you’re already doing this together you’re probably not reading this article.

Gemba walks: Go and see the people who your software helps, understand their world as deeply as you can.

Assumption and Prototype testing: When you test assumptions after you’ve built the software you’re guaranteed to have made expensive mistakes. Find ways to test early.

Combined reviews and retrospectives: So often sprint reviews only involve a developer and product owner who’ve already worked on the sprint. Who else should be there? Could you include someone who has the problem you are trying to solve?

And finally, I will inevitably hear that all this collaboration takes too much time, that people are too busy. Too busy doing what? Successful software companies focus foremost on creating valuable software. All the other activities like selling and supporting become a breeze if your software delights your customers. Cross-functional collaboration is now the only way to be competitive. Let nothing detract from your heroes quest.

If you’d like help closing a chasm I can run workshops that give the process a kick start and then follow it up with coaching and mentoring.


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