Its all about finding the balance!

Its all about finding the balance!

During the heart of winter, when the polar vortex swoops down with temperatures that even my dog finds uncomfortable, my wife and I assemble puzzles.  The act of assembling a puzzle is a simple example of the need to balance a system view with a more detailed perspective.  Getting work done efficiently and effectively requires both perspectives in some sort of balance.

The process we use for assembling a puzzle begins with opening the box, spilling the contents on a handy table and then propping up the lid so we can reference the big picture.  I once had a conversation in a hotel bar with a person who told me that he thought using the picture as a reference was cheating.  A little probing suggested that starting puzzles might have been more his actual goal than completing them, due to the time it took to discover the picture.  In our process, by contrast, I use completion of the puzzle as the goal and the picture on the cover of the box acts as the high-level requirements. However, as anyone that has ever assembled a puzzle will tell you, to achieve your goal you still need to fit all of those little pieces together.  Whether the puzzle you are working on has 100, 500 or 1000 pieces you will have to shift from focusing on the big picture to focusing on the details to find the right fit. The information from both perspectives is essential to fully understand what is required to get from the start of the system to the end of the system in an effective and efficient manner.

Reflecting back to my conversation about puzzles in the hotel bar, by eschewing the big picture, the systems thinking view, my neighbor might have been able to complete the puzzle, but not in the most efficient manner.  Meanwhile, a single-minded focus on the big picture, as pointed out in Gene Hughson’s comments to Systems Thinking: Difficulties can cause the equality serious problem of analysis paralysis. Spinning down into greater or greater levels of detailed analysis means a team is delaying its ability to deliver business value.  Gene was interviewed for the Software Process and Measurement Cast 268 providing great insights into Agile architecture, software development and management.

In the end, both perspectives are needed to get the job done. Finding the balance between the macro- (systems thinking) and micro-focus is a process in its own right.  The balance changes over the life of any project or even iteration. As a team shifts from conceptualizing to developing what is to be done they naturally shift from the big picture to the detailed view.  Product owners face a similar journey between the big picture and the detail, however they need to own the goal and the picture on the puzzle’s lid.  As a coach, the scrum master needs to make sure the whole team remembers the overall goal and big picture. Systems thinking helps us to understand that nothing happens in a vacuum.  Developing an understanding of how we transform inputs into value is critical. However in order to deliver that value, just having the big picture understanding is not sufficient. In order to actually execute, we need to have a handle on the detail also.

A good fruit salad requires balance.

A good fruit salad requires balance.

In the Software Process and Measurement Cast 308, author Michael West describes a scenario in which a cellphone manufacturer decided that quality was their ultimate goal. The handset that resulted did not wow their customers. The functionally wasn’t what was expected and the price was prohibitive. The morale of the story was that quality really should not have be the ultimate goal of the project. At the time I recorded the interview I did not think the message Mr. West was suggesting was controversial. Recently I got a call on Skype. The caller had listened to the podcast and read Project Success: A Balancing Act and wanted to discuss why his department’s clients were up in arms about the slow rate of delivery and the high cost of projects. Heated arguments had erupted at steering committee meetings and it was rumored that someone had suggested that if the business wanted cheaper products that IT would just stop testing. Clearly focusing on the goal of zero defects (which was equated to quality) was eliciting unproductive behavior. Our discussion lead to an agreement that a more balanced goal for software development, enhancement or maintenance projects is the delivery of maximum value to whoever requested the project.

When a sponsor funds and sells a project they communicate a set of expectations. Those exceptions typically encompass a project will deliver:

  1. The functionality needed to meet their needs,
  2. The budget they will spend to acquire that functionality,
  3. When want the functionality, and
  4. The level of quality required to support their needs.

Each expectation is part of the definition of value. A project that is delivered with zero defects two years after it is need is less valuable than a project delivered when needed that may have some latent minor defects. A project that costs too much uses resources that might be better used to do another project or potentially causes an organization products to be priced out of the market. Successful projects find a balance between all expectations in order to maximize the value that is delivered.

Quality is not the ultimate goal of any software development, enhancement or maintenance project but neither is cost, schedule or even functionality. Value is the goal all project should pursue. Finding and maintaining equilibrium between the competing goals of cost, schedule and functionality is needed to maximize the ultimate value of a project. Each project will have their own balance based on the context of the project. Focusing on one goal to the exclusion of all others represents an opportunity cost. Every time we face a decision that promotes one goal over another, we should ask ourselves whether that choice is worth giving focus over another goal. Projects that focus on value create an environment in which teams, sponsors and organizations confront the trade-offs goals like zero-defects or perfect quality can cause.

Its all about finding the balance!

Its all about finding the balance!

During the heart of winter, when the polar vortex swoops down with temperatures that even my dog finds uncomfortable, my wife and I assemble puzzles.  The act of assembling a puzzle is a simple example of the need to balance a system view with a more detailed perspective.  Getting work done efficiently and effectively requires both perspectives in some sort of balance.

The process we use for assembling a puzzle begins with opening the box, spilling the contents on a handy table and then propping up the lid so we can reference the big picture.  I once had a conversation in a hotel bar with a person who told me that he thought using the picture as a reference was cheating.  A little probing suggested that starting puzzles might have been more his actual goal than completing them, due to the time it took to discover the picture.  In our process, by contrast, I use completion of the puzzle as the goal and the picture on the cover of the box acts as the high-level requirements. However, as anyone that has ever assembled a puzzle will tell you, to achieve your goal you still need to fit all of those little pieces together.  Whether the puzzle you are working on has 100, 500 or 1000 pieces you will have to shift from focusing on the big picture to focusing on the details to find the right fit. The information from both perspectives is essential to fully understand what is required to get from the start of the system to the end of the system in an effective and efficient manner.

Reflecting back to my conversation about puzzles in the hotel bar, by eschewing the big picture, the systems thinking view, my neighbor might have been able to complete the puzzle, but not in the most efficient manner.  Meanwhile, a single-minded focus on the big picture, as pointed out in Gene Hughson’s comments to Systems Thinking: Difficulties can cause the equality serious problem of analysis paralysis. Spinning down into greater or greater levels of detailed analysis means a team is delaying its ability to deliver business value.  Gene was interviewed for the Software Process and Measurement Cast 268 providing great insights into Agile architecture, software development and management.

In the end, both perspectives are needed to get the job done. Finding the balance between the macro- (systems thinking) and micro-focus is a process in its own right.  The balance changes over the life of any project or even iteration. As a team shifts from conceptualizing to developing what is to be done they naturally shift from the big picture to the detailed view.  Product owners face a similar journey between the big picture and the detail, however they need to own the goal and the picture on the puzzle’s lid.  As a coach, the scrum master needs to make sure the whole team remembers the overall goal and big picture. Systems thinking helps us to understand that nothing happens in a vacuum.  Developing an understanding of how we transform inputs into value is critical. However in order to deliver that value, just having the big picture understanding is not sufficient. In order to actually execute, we need to have a handle on the detail also.