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Many Companies are Drowning in a Sea of Opportunity

By David Hawks | Jun 19, 2013 |  Agile,  Agile Transformation,  Article

picture of a rowboat on water, many companies are drowning in a sea of opportunity“Many Companies are Drowning in a Sea of Opportunity.” Ken Rubin made that statement at a conference I attended and it resonated with me. This is probably one of the top three issues many companies face — they try to do more than their capacity allows and it perpetuates the problem.

If companies would focus on a single project at a time, they can be 2-4x more effective than splitting time between multiple projects.  When working on four projects at a time of similar size, the first project may take 80% of the overall time.  However, when focusing on one project at a time, the first one could be completed in 20% of the time and the rest of them done sequentially in typically 40%-60% of the time it would have taken if done simultaneously.

graph depicting simultaneous vs single projects - companies are drowning in a sea of opportunity

 But why do we work on so many projects at once?

The top two traps organizations fall into:
  1.  Stakeholders wanting their project to be “In Progress”
  2. Management trying to maximize the efficiency of individuals
The underlying issue in everyone wanting their projects “In Progress” is a lack of trust. Customers and Stakeholders want to know their project is “In Progress” because if it is, then they feel they have a higher chance of receiving it someday. If it hasn’t started, they don’t know if they will ever get it. This is typically a problem with teams that aren’t delivering frequently and/or aren’t providing transparency.
Management teams have been trained to focus on efficiency and utilization. Too often this translates into focusing on individual optimization as opposed to system optimization. This is an ineffective way of thinking when leading knowledge workers. By optimizing individuals you will typically sub-optimize the overall system.

In contrast, the whole system should be optimized to deliver value.

For example, I often hear things like, “it is more efficient for our lead developer, Pat, to just go work in his office for 80 hours to get the feature done.” It might be more efficient for him to crank out the most code, but will it help QA understand how the system is being built? Will it ensure Pat is building the feature to meet the customer’s needs? Collaboration is inefficient at an individual level, but it’s critical when trying to maximize value delivery.
Organizations should balance demand to their throughput and limit how much Work is in Progress (WIP) at one time.  This requires leadership to make hard decisions about priorities. If not, and they maintain everything a high priority, then they are deferring the decision to the implementer–the least equipped to understand the business drivers.
Imagine Pat is given four High priorities and told they all must get done immediately. How does Pat decide which one to work on first? The easiest? Whoever is screaming the loudest? The one that looks the most fun? These are all excellent criteria to be used to run your business, right?
By limiting WIP and balancing demand to throughput, companies can realize some valuable results:
  • Increase productivity and deliver more value
  • Customers become more engaged
  • Agility to adjust when changes occur
  • Limit the costs of delay
  • Lower cycle times

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