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Rants of a Madman – When 30 Day Syndrome Attacks – Planning Like You’re Goldilocks

October 20, 2012

Once upon a time back in the 2000’s I joined a company and one of the teams that I had picked up had a very negative reputation with the business. The business viewed them as a bunch of slackers who acted like the company was a day spa and who could never be counted on to deliver anything on time. In fact, their latest endeavor was already nine months behind schedule and they had missed a few commitment resets to the business more than a couple of times before my arrival.

So, there I was the new head of R&D for this company and I walked in to a situation where the team had their latest deadline on Monday and here it was the Friday before. What were they doing? They were taking the afternoon off to celebrate by treating the entire team to a great steak lunch and activities. I naively thought that they must have finally finished. Boy was I wrong. As it turned out they knew that they were not going to complete on time. Not only were they going to miss their deadline yet again, but they hadn’t told anybody. They hadn’t even told me, the new head of their department. Not only were they celebrating a miss, they also had no intent of trying to put in any extra hours to honor their latest missed commitment to the business. Now call me the evil Californian who many native Oregonians sometime openly wish I would return with the rest of my lot, but really guys? Was this any way to run a railroad?

Since I couldn’t reach anybody that Friday afternoon I did a slow burn and built up quite a head of steam over the weekend. Although I was about as unglued as somebody could get I was able to come back down to Earth by the time I met with the manager on Monday about this latest miss. The answer that I got was “Well, we only need another 30 days and this team has been working so hard for so long that if we didn’t do something the morale was going to do a deep dive and we’d lose people.” Hmmm… I chose to ignore the working hard comment given that I had never witnessed that particular team put in half the hours that their peers on other teams were putting in on their own projects. Instead I stayed focus on the commitments being made and missed repeatedly.

“And how do you know you only need another 30 days?”

“Because there isn’t that much left to do.”

“Really? Can you show me your project plan? You’ve told the business this a few times before; given that track record you have no credibility and therefor I just don’t believe you.” (Note: this is before we rolled out Agile to the teams)

“Well, um, err, well, hmm…” was the response. I asked for the project plan. What I received the next day was an Excel spreadsheet that showed a couple of rows in work streams and a new milestone set 30 days out… It was an attempt to make a handful of rows in Excel look like an MS Project plan and if the file had been created before that very morning I would have been surprised…

So here was my problem… The team’s original committed date to the business was over 9 months ago and in the 3 months before my arrival they had asked for another 30 days no fewer than 3 times. This was the 5th time at bat with a new commitment. Seriously? Not on my watch…

Truth be told the team and the manager had no clue how much work was left. I drilled down on the new plan and found out that what was happening was that they thought they were almost done. Recommitting to anything further out than a month out seemed “way too long given how far [they’d] come”, but anything less than a month seemed “way too short as there was too much remaining ‘cleanup’ work to finish within 3 weeks.”

Wow… Mystery solved folks: Goldilocks was running the project and making business commitments. A new date more than a month out felt too far away and anything less than a month felt too short; therefore a full month felt just right.

Felt like the right answer a few times I guess. I hit the STOP button. I retrenched the entire team and had them create a real project plan. Two weeks later I was presented with something that was almost six months out. Wow… From “We only need another 30 days” to “We need another six months” and in less than two weeks of real planning no less… Had to be a record. Time to call Guinness Book of World Records.

After hearing this, and to add insult to injury, I just had to ask my favorite question of any project team. In my worst dumb Columbo impersonation possible (at least it was winter, I owned a trench coat, and I could place my fingers on my forehead as in forgetful attempts at remembrance). I asked “And if something goes wrong can you absorb the hit and still make this new commitment? Will this schedule survive a lightning strike?” Oh my… You would have thought that I really was the famous TV police detective and that I had just discovered the neighbor’s chopped up body parts stored in a barrel on their 2nd story balcony. Everybody had the same look on their faces and it told me they were still doing Happy Path “feels right” planning and there were even more rocks to turn over before this journey was over.

It was way past time to punt on this project; at least on my watch. I knew what I was working with and now understood what most of the major work items left were. After another week of working through the schedule and the QA plan I was able to make several updates. I also found there were several chunks of “rinse and repeat” tasks where even minimal QA automation could chop man-months off of the estimates. After some extensive work it looked like we could actually land the plane in 3 months and if we didn’t have any major screw-ups again we could come in early. The team executed on the plan and finally gave birth to their product. They had finally made their first commitment, albeit the 5th attempt well over a year late in the eyes of the business. Although the business didn’t care given the team’s history, I knew that with a couple of personnel changes, guidance, mentoring, and careful monitoring perhaps we could not repeat the sins of the past on future projects with this team.

Fast forward to today… Loaded Columbo question: So, even though your team claims to be Agile, does it suffer from Goldilocks planning and the resulting infection of 30 Day Syndrome?

One of the purported advantages of Agile is that you can ‘ship’ something at the end of every iteration. Yah, right… And the Pope is married with three kids (at least not in the last few centuries that is). For some teams it is true, especially for those with small efforts or very disconnected features with very few dependencies. The reality, however, is that in many commercial software endeavors as well as with large IT systems the complexity of the solutions and their often interdependent parts means that it really takes several iterations to complete anything that is shippable for mass use.

Some Agile teams, however, treat this as an excuse in terms of not making any commitments to the business. There are those who tell their business customer “I just don’t know and that’s okay as we are doing Agile; you should be okay with not knowing as well” or “It’ll ship when we have a Sprint finish and magically discover that there are no more stories left in the backlog; now go away as you bother me with your non-Agilist questions that I don’t have the time answer.” Then finally you have the teams that, when pushed hard for a date, reach back in to their inner Goldilocks hiding at the root of their brain stock and spit out the “feels just right…” answer. Yes, it often is 30 days out… Oh, and don’t let me forget the “end of the quarter” feels just right answer as well. Anytime I see the date of 12/31 I strongly suspect the team probably just threw the date out there as a “feels just right” placeholder (I’ve been wrong, but not often on that one).

I’m here to say, from experience, that if you were actually doing Agile, you would be able to name that tune plus/minus an iteration months out from your commitment date.

Okay, I’ll make it easier…

At the very least, any Agile team should be able to name their release date within a minimum of a 90 day window before that date.

We are only talking 3-6 iterations depending on your iteration length. There are commercial software teams out there who have to plan their iterations and their Scrum of Scrums to name that tune up to nine months out. Nine month is three times further out than what I’m saying should be the minimum.

It simply comes back to are you actually doing Agile or are you simply calling what you do Agile? If you were only working on groomed stories you’d be more productive and predictable. If you were doing estimates for your stories, and measuring how long it really takes, you’d be better story estimators. If you were better story estimators your velocity and burn down metrics would actually mean something and could be leveraged. If you had the historic velocity and burn down baselines to work with your Scrum of Scrum planning would actually mean something as well. If your Scrum of Scrums were working well you’d be able to actually estimate how many iterations are left in a given release. If you were holding real retrospectives with real actionable Keep/Stop/Start lists and were ratcheting up your team’s best practices with 1 or 2 incremental improvements each iteration you’d be a well-oiled machine with an amazingly predictable cadence.

But, for those teams who are not quite there with Agile, there is Goldilocks to fall back on. The problem though is that the business actually hates the story of The Three Bears and Goldilocks isn’t somebody they want to trust major business decisions to let alone to somebody they want running their project delivery teams. They want to trust these decisions to teams who are credible—those who make their commitments by delivering high quality solutions that delight them on time.

So, do you suffer from having Goldilocks as your inner Sherpa on this Agile journey?

Break free of this inner Goldilocks and start with the basics… Stories, acceptance criteria, planning poker, estimating stories and tracking the actuals, treating work as work (i.e. if it isn’t a groomed story in the backlog then it doesn’t exist), iterations where stories don’t move in and out like the changing tide, actually having retrospectives with a couple of actionable improvements each time at bat, having good Scrum planning, and taking Scrum of Scrums seriously.

I know it is a journey versus an event, but this isn’t something you wait for a manager to fix for you. It isn’t something you wait for the product owner or scrum master to do either. There is no room for whining or playing the victim on an Agile team. Rule one of digging holes is to quit digging; if you are helping to dig the hole then drop your shovel. There are successful Agile teams out there—copy what they are doing vs. waiting for somebody else to come in to solve the problem or fix it for you.

You are the master of your own Agile journey. Don’t be Goldilocks and suffer from your own 30 Day Syndrome when it comes to taking your own actionable steps to help adopt Agile.

If you are making commitments to the business, you cannot afford to be Goldilocks; they have no patience for it.

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From → Agile

2 Comments
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  1. Commitments – Making, Keeping, Revising | Mark Lawler

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