Too much focus on things, not enough focus on commitment

The title and inspiration of this blog comes from Chapter 8 of John Bogle’s book “Enough: True Measures of Money, Business and Life”. In it, Bogle condemns the modern tendency to focus on material things rather than the importance of contribution and commitment. He characterises this as an attitude that “whoever dies with the most toys wins”.

The obvious parallel in the world IT and software product development is the tendency to focus on the wrong measures of success, for example lines of code delivered or level of adherence to a predetermined activity plan (all no more than means to a greater end), and not enough on pursuing the ideal of absolute commitment of a team to produce great outcomes.

There is of course an increasing drive to make ensure that we do focus on outcomes achieved and not merely effort expended. Incremental, iterative, agile and lean thinking all encourages us to measure absolute progress in terms of how much of the outcomes that we need to achieve have we actually achieved. for example in terms of backlog items (features, stories) completed and accepted.

But without the genuine change in mindset required to see that these are the measures that truly matter, there is always a danger that agile and lean practices and techniques can be misapplied in such a way as to perpetuate a belief in the primary importance of counting things that are not actually valuable in themselves.

For example, Scrum involves an iterative planning cycle whereby the team selects things to achieve and then plans out what tasks they need to perform in order to achieve them, before settling on a plan of action that covers what things they believe they can achieve and how they aim to go about achieving them.

If these practices are adopted at the same time as genuine team empowerment and an understanding by leadership that as long as outcomes are good, all is good.

However, experience shows that managers that are convinced of the need to micro-manage teams can latch onto secondary artifacts such as the team’s task plan, task board and Sprint Burndown, which are there to support the team in staying focused on the right day to day tasks to enable them to achieve the agreed outcomes. If this happens, increasing amount of team energy is diverted into maintaining task-level plans and justifying the inevitable flexing and divergence from the exact original envisaged set of tasks.

It is good that this detailed task plan only has a short horizon. Good too that it came from the team. And Good that it was based on a specific consideration of the exact backlog items and other specific things the team absolutely positively has to achieve in the specific project situation they find themselves. But things start to wrong as soon as anyone starts to see sticking to this plan as the point.

As ever with applying agile practices, it is adherence to the underlying principles and value that should always be our guiding light. In this case we should remember and reference the Agile Manifesto and the fact that it states that we always value “Responding to change over following a plan”.

The images I like to use to illustrate this Agile Manifesto value is The Charge of the Light Brigade to show the problem of following a plan come what may, and a game of chess to illustrate the concept of continuously responding to change. We all know that proficiency at chess requires that we think many moves ahead. But we also know that any attempt to blindly follow any set of pre-considered moves will inevitably lead to disaster.

The commitment that Bogle is looking for us to value over and above other secondary considerations also has a direct parallel in agile principles and practices. It is interesting however that the team commitment to its own plan that previously formed an explicit part of Scrum has been explicitly changed in the 2011 revision of the Scrum Guide to talk of “forecasting” rather than commitment. The reason for this is that “commitment” has in the past been misinterpreted as “guarantee”.

For me this is a case in point however where it is the mindsets of those involved and not the terminology used that needs to change. If we return to the chess analogy, a great chess player will be absolutely 100% committed to their game and to winning their current encounter. Absolute commitment is what separates the great from the rest and is the difference between winning and losing. If, however, we were to ask if the chess master if they could guarantee their success in their current game, they would say absolutely that they could not, and indeed any idea that they could would smack of complacency, which in turn would be likely to result in failure.

In conclusion, therefore, I agree strongly with Bogle that commitment is incredibly important. What we need to do is to work towards a change of culture and mindset where a team of people including customers, leaders, managers and deliverers are all committed together to the same outcome and to continuously collaboratively planning and executing their way towards the achievement of their shared goals.

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