Shaping business targets into realizable commitments

Planning and estimation strive to anticipate and shape future events from an imperfect understanding of the current situation, the desired outcomes, relevant historical information, and the actions required to achieve success. Planning and estimating must discover, focus on, and document assumptions about key unknowns, develop hypotheses about current and future constraints and their likely impact on the course of the project, and translate these assessments into action plans and affordable resource allocations.

These plans must launch the project with focused momentum directed towards the project's vision and objectives, with monitors that will help to ramp up velocity appropriately, proactively manage non-conformant work as it arises, and fine tune the involvement of participating actors. Such self-correcting project controls are essential to successfully pursuing a project's goals.

Consider the diagram on the right. Anytime that resource or schedule adjustments are made to a project, a period of instability will occur, as these new resources adjust to their new situation and the existing resources accommodate the new interactions that are required. This period of added instability means that cost and schedule performance may become even less predictable than it normally was. Such gaps in performance relative to expectations can then result in decreased confidence that the project will achieve the outcomes which we originally desired. As this confidence is diminished, there may be a desire to produce even more status (that is, more frequently, or in more detail). This appetite often will then be manifested in the application of additional oversight, which in turn reduces the resources available to do the actual work. And this can cause the cycle to begin again, and the team's performance to deteriorate, rather than improve. This doesn't mean that things will be reported this way, but over time, such fog undeniably increases the probability that only what is measured will be done.

As we move into unknown territory, it's not uncommon for us to encounter constraints, such as how much time we have to achieve our objective, or how much fuel we can carry.  Such constraints arise at multiple levels, and are core to the negotiations stakeholders play. As multiple projects are authorized and initiated under these dynamics, the hypotheses and assumptions which framed this planning will be tested. Where assumptions or hypotheses are invalid, a tuning of approaches will need to be performed, so the most critical projects will be more likely to realize their targets. Over time, as patterns and habits are established and reinforced by these decisions across all the projects within a portfolio, the effectiveness of the choices made within and across these projects will be amplified, and be aggregated to collectively impact the affordability of future discretionary investments available to improve performance even further.

Project sponsors tend to have similar goals for desired characteristics of such portfolios; they want to pursue results that are available faster, better, and cheaper than has previously been achieved, believing such characteristics are the most important enablers for future business. Yet increasingly, evidence indicates that for many entrenched industries, gaps between business targets and actual performance are widening, not narrowing. As businesses mature in their marketplaces, needed solutions take longer to develop, and are more difficult and expensive to support, making them less useful to customers once they are finally available.

Scott Berkun reflects on the effects as causes cycle which underlies this phenomenon by recalling the Fred Brooks classic, The Mythical Man-month:

Brooks observed that “men and months are interchangeable commodities only when a task can be partitioned among many workers with no communication among them.” With software, where every project is different and the tools are in constant flux, each time you add a new member to a team, the veterans must drop what they are doing to bring the latecomer up to speed, and everyone needs to pause to reapportion their tasks to give the newcomer something to do. Before you know it, you’re even further behind schedule. In the worst cases, Brooks saw, this set up a disastrous loop of delay, a “regenerative scheduling disaster” in which each resetting of the schedule triggers the hiring of more bodies, forcing yet another new schedule into place. Brooks quailed at that prospect: “Therein lies madness.”

These behaviors are obviously not an engine that fuels a sustainable business. It is easy to recognize the dynamics of this situation. Reacting within an overly narrow time horizon, interventions can easily cause performance to oscillate, especially when the effects of flawed mental models and biases in status reporting are factored in. Frequently, unrealistic planning and estimating can further exacerbate this situation, and easily lead to situations in which the demand for resources significantly exceeds the capacity of those resources within the available timeframe. As this situation continues over time, an added affect arises when customers dictate that everything is a top priority (which, of course, it is, from within each of their isolated perspectives).

According to this recent analysis, the root causes of growing performance gaps between behaviors and desires, when studied across many projects, include:

  • Increases in technical complexity of solutions
  • Program management challenges within evolving organizational structures
  • Supply chain disappointments
  • Talent shortages
  • Political maneuvering and compromises

A careful appraisal of the above list reveals how difficult it is to address these root causes. The increased complexity of solutions within long-term businesses is often driven by diverse customer differentiation and ongoing obligations for supporting products previously delivered to those customers; asking customers to migrate off of a solution they have adopted and optimized their business around over long timeframes is an unrealistic short term objective. Better program management approaches and less expensive supply chains have been employed as the standard playbook by many businesses for the last twenty years; yet the fact remains that these strategies are now often identified as problems rather than best practices. This situation serves to reinforce that such disciplines must be applied delicately, rather than blindly. Further, since neither of these two strategies offers immediate relief to the problems of either talent shortages or organizational politics, increasingly ambitious business targets will remain progressively more difficult to achieve within most organizations, unless alternative approaches can be embraced that provide opportunities for faster feedback and learning while pursuing and shaping project outcomes.

There are no easy answers. Schedules matter. Escalating customer expectations drives us to tackle navigation of riskier and more dynamic challenges. Business strategies depend upon a credible pursuit of ambitious and ambiguous goals in the long term. Realizing these goals within both time horizons rely upon the socialization and shaping of ways and means to pursue these ends, a process that must be on-going if it expects to be relevant and trusted. Otherwise, interventions  will be perceived to be part of the problem rather than a part of the solution.

This series describes the concepts behind establishing a reasonable basis for planning, explores how to factor in uncertainty and risk into estimates, offers guidance on how to manage the commitment process, and provides a means to track progress over time towards the priority goals that ultimately will determine the success or failure of our many endeavors.