Staff liquidity takes a central position in this week’s installment of our read of Commitment – Novel about Managing Project Risk by Olav Maassen, Chris Matts and Chris Geary (2nd edition, 2016) . Chapter 5 is a relatively short chapter, but exposes one of the critical mechanisms for how Agile teams are able to self-organize and self-manage. If you are an Agile coach or involved in an Agile transformation, once you recognize the concepts in this chapter you will be surprised how many times you use them. If have been struggling with the concept how Agile teams can handle the need to shift roles to address changes in needs with management intervention this chapter provides you with the knowledge you will need.
Chapter 5 begins with Rose’s manager informing her that he taken two junior resources off the project and assigned to another project. Rose tells her boss that taking the two resources would disrupt the team’s staff liquidity. Her boss points out that he could’ve taken her experts instead. This clash over staffing establishes the context for Rose to explain staff liquidity. The process of staff liquidity begins by allocating the people with the least options (the fewest things they can do or most specialized) to work. In self-managing teams, this requires that team members have a good deal of team and self-knowledge (see Johari’s Window). Those with more options fill in the gaps in capability after the first wave of allocation and are available to react when things happen. Allocating personnel with the most options last provides the team with the most flexibility. It should be noted that just because someone has a large amount of experience, that might not translate to options. Expertise and experience in one capability (for example, a senior person that can only test) has very few options, and therefore, have to be allocated early.
Rose points out that the team allocates to the constraints found in the project’s development process. The discussion of constraints generate a flashback on the explanation of constraints. A bottleneck is a resource that has a capacity that is less to demand placed on that resource while a constraint is a physical factor that limits performance. In the book, Rose conflates the concepts of constraints and bottlenecks; however the mistake is of little importance. During the constraints flashback, Rose’s boss is shocked to find out that the team has decided to pair business analysts and testers. An explanation is demanded which generates another flashback. Rose explains that the team had run into problems when business analysts handed their work off to both test planning and development which worked in parallel. Discoveries were made in test planning that did not flow to development personnel, meaning that problems were discovered in test execution requiring rework late in the process. Paring business analysis and test planning earlier in the process has significantly increased the team’s knowledge of the features they are working on early in the development process and less rework in the development cycle.
In the end, Rose agrees to give up two people, but rather than two junior testers with fewer options, she gives up two more experienced testers with more options. Rose’s manager reads this as Rose having a problem with dealing with experts or senior people. He orders a review that could lead to the shut down of the project.
The chapter ends with a blog entry on shortening feedback loops and staff liquidity. A year-long project that delivers once at the end of the project only gets production feedback once. A project that delivers once a month will get feedback multiple times, reducing the risk of not delivering value. Short iterations and feedback reduce risk because the team has substantially more options. The team’s options could include stopping the project or changing direction. The ability to change direction is enhanced by staff liquidity. Staff liquidity is generated by:
- Reducing or eliminating key man dependencies (only one person can do an important task).
- Allocating staff with the fewest options first and those with the most options last (people with the most options are used to react to constraints or problems).
- The staff of the most options coach and help the staff with the least options (coaching builds the team’s capability).
Staff liquidity reduces the risk that constraints will stop progress by preserving as many options for the team possible. Options increase the team’s flexibility to react when stuff happens or business needs change.