This is a transcript of episode 150 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.
Squirrel and Jeffrey deconstruct the defensive reasoning behind planning 110% of velocity in each sprint. Hidden conversations and assumptions abound, including the perception that this is normal, that the team will do more as a result, and that we know what 110% is in the first place.
Squirrel’s Client Story
Squirrel: Welcome back to a solstice Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel. And you have a story for us and I’m really excited about it because we haven’t discussed it yet but you just gave me a little taste of it. And I’m really excited about us talking about it. Can you tell us your little story?
Squirrel: I can. You’re raring to go, I suspect.
Jeffrey: I am.
Squirrel: I have a lot to say about this one. So I had a client who was describing their development process to me, as many clients do, because they want me to help with that and give them advice and understand it. And the client described it in this way “So, of course,” and I’m underlining those words “we load’ And I thought load was an interesting word, too. “We load our sprints to 110 percent of what we think we can do in the sprint. And we do that because, and it’s just between you and me” just between you and me, is the other interesting phrase. So just between you and me, one of the reasons we do that is we want the team to stretch. And sometimes we do find that they get more done than they otherwise would have or that they did in the previous sprint. And also, we don’t want them to run out of work. Those are our reasons for loading the sprint to 110 percent. And I just carefully wrote that down and I said, gee, I think I’m going to talk to Jeffrey about that. So what do you think?
Jeffrey: Wow, I’m going to be inarticulate here I worry because there’s so many thoughts that come to mind.
Squirrel: Give us a few.
Jeffrey: Well, the “of course” I got to say this, the “of course”, it’s so sad for two reasons at least. One is, I find the theory here to be wrong, to be flawed and like well-documented, flawed in ways that are known for a long period of time. And yet what is being said here is I think so, so common. And it could be that some of our listeners, I expect some of our listeners will hear that and say, “well, yeah, of course you do that. Of course, it’s the normal thing to do. Of course, you don’t want to run out of work. Of course you want people to stretch. Yeah. Stretch goals. Those are good, right? And so there’s an element to which was the “of course”, is so dead on in that it captures a common point of view. And yet. There’s that very different point of view, which is we’re open to questioning it and this is the thing is the “of course” makes it not open to question. There’s another view that says that this is not an obvious thing and in fact, that we might rethink it, that we might get some better results if we had a different theory.
Jeffrey: And so that’s why I’m so excited to talk about this, because to me that, “of course”, is so rich. And of course, you and I, we do conversation analysis with people. And what that’s really about is learning, people learn about themselves from the words they use. And I think that’s why this is striking me so heavily, because I’ve been doing some conversation analysis with people this week and had these moments where they could get moments of insight about themselves because of their choice of words. And sometimes when we point at the meanings, I find people want to pull back from them and they’ll say, “oh, no, no, I think I chose the wrong words.” I say, “I think you chose a very accurate word that accurately portrayed how you really feel. Let’s explore that” and that’s always been a very fruitful line for us to go down. And I think, “of course”, is one of those things. I think that’s what has me so excited. How about you Squirrel, what comes to mind for you?
Squirrel: Well, I chose not to raise it in the moment there. The situation I was in was one where it was more natural to feedback later and this person was in flow and telling me about a lot of different things. And I was going to provide feedback in a structured way at a later time. So I did just write it down carefully and note this is one for the podcast and I’m glad that I picked a good one out of the stream. So I didn’t have a comment at the time. But my comment later will be that this is certainly something that one should not assume is the obvious way to approach a sprint, if you intentionally overload the team and don’t tell them about it so they’re not part of the discussion. You create a number of different difficulties and I’ll just name one but Jeffrey I think you’ll you’ll probably want to comment on several more. One of the difficulties you create is that the team may stretch, you might achieve your goal. And the problem is they might achieve the goal by taking shortcuts, not building tests or skipping some important feature or something like that, or that they might do it by burning themselves out, by working late, by getting tired, by getting annoyed and quitting. If you continue to run the team at more than their capacity consistently, it’s not uncommon for people to say, “I don’t have to do this. There are other opportunities for me that I could take up and I’ll go do those some place where I won’t have to run at that pace.” So the one of the problems, one of the several problems I can see with this is that you might get what you want. What else do you see that might not work?
Jeffrey: Well, actually, can argue even that for even that for a second, you say get what you want. And the problem is we don’t communicate what we want, we communicate indirectly. What they want is all of it done to the full level of quality. What they want is it all done well and thoughtfully and considerately. What you’re describing with the cutting corners is actually them getting what they asked for, but not what they want.
Squirrel: Very good point. So you might get you might get what you ask for.
Jeffrey: Exactly! You wanted us to check all these boxes and sure enough, we’re going to check these boxes. And I think that is a tremendous danger. Every line of this, every word for me has potential things to explore. One is if you say “we lead sprints to a 110 percent and sometimes they do it”, there’s a possible if you are more reflective person, you might say, well, that must mean we really don’t understand what our capacity is because otherwise, it would be impossible for us to get 110 percent done.
Jeffrey: And what does that mean if we don’t really know what our capacity is? What’s the right way for us to approach the world if we don’t know? But there’s an element of ignorance in here. That I suspect that they’re unaware of.
Squirrel: And it could be that they are aware, so of course, I don’t know. But I’ve encountered folks who have this philosophy many times, of course. And sometimes I have heard them say things like, “well, look, it’s impossible to really know what the capacity is and people don’t really know what their own capacity is.” So I even had one person. I was not a big fan of this particular approach. But he said, “look, a common thing,” I’m not sure he’s right that it’s a common thing, but “a common thing for sports motivators, for people who are coaches or in some other way getting people in sport to do more is to push them beyond what you know, they can do and to try to get them to run faster or jump higher or something like that, more than they have shown that they can achieve and that this was a good sport psychologists approach.” I’m not sure it is that. I think they might argue that it is that if you don’t really know and you’re not really sure what your capacity is, try for more. What do you think about that?
Jeffrey: You know, and I actually really like that, honestly. I think that’s very good. But I’m pretty sure when that happens in the sports analogy, they’re not hiding it from the athlete.
Squirrel: Athlete knows I jumped only five feet yesterday. So now you’re asking me to jump five and a quarter and that’s new. That’s something I haven’t done before.
Jeffrey: That’s right. And I think this is actually really important because there is and I’m a huge fan of a high performance culture. I’m a big fan of people wanting to be better, and I find that important and to me it can be very motivating to be part of a group. I was talking to someone just earlier today about how much fun and how much excitement that is to be with a group of people who all are pushing ourselves and each other to be better. And part of that is to go beyond what our limits are. Let’s let’s figure out what our limits really are. We don’t really know until we push ourselves. So let’s push ourselves and find out. And I’ll see even in my own personal life, I’m a very poor runner but I do run regularly. And this year I’ve been running with my daughter. She’s picked it up and we will do some runs that are faster than what we could do over a sustained period of time. And that’s part of our training. We know what we’re doing, which is we’re trying to become faster. And so we do deliberate sprints to find those edges and exceed what we could do sustainably. I’ve done that in software development as well with teams that say, “well, let’s see what happens, let’s see what we can learn from this.” and I think there can be tremendous energy unleashed in the team when, you know, that’s what you’re doing when people are bought in.
Squirrel: So what’s wrong with this approach then?
Jeffrey: Because it doesn’t sound like it’s a choice that people have. It’s not something that they’re being asked to take part in. It’s something that’s being imposed upon them.
Squirrel: “Just between you and me, one of the reasons is we want the team to stretch. So, of course, we don’t tell the team.” Another “of course.”
Jeffrey: That’s right.
Squirrel: Our view is that, of course, you should tell the team that should be part of your discussion.
Jeffrey: Well, it makes me sad because you’re losing such a potential source of energy and excitement for the team. You know, if you had people bought into the idea of, we want to be better. And actually my experience is that most people- the many, many people, I wouldn’t say most, but many people are very hungry for the idea of being better. They want to know what being better means, what being better is. And they like being involved in that. They like having the discussion of, what kind of trade offs are good trade offs and what kind of trade offs are bad trade offs and being part of a learning, improving culture. But that’s not what this is. This is in my view, an antiquated idea of what management is supposed to be. Which is to say we’re going to load people down and be very demanding and we’ll see who cracks and we’ll see who doesn’t. We want to just this is how we’ll find out what people can do because we’re going to load them up as much as possible. And I think what you engender in that is the traditional reaction where people will work, there’s a phrase called ‘under time’. This is a common response to mandatory overtime, people put in under time when they’re at their desk doing things that look like work-like behaviour, but they’re not putting in their energy and it’s not productive time.
Squirrel: So it’s a contrast with overtime, overtime, where you’re working hard for longer than you should under time. ‘under time’ you’re working less hard for less than you should.
Jeffrey: Well, no, actually, usually it’s longer, in my experience people put in time. They’re there in “work” but it’s not productive. They may score very highly on the pizza box metric. Many people staying late, many pizzas ordered. But somehow productivity isn’t what we would expect. Even though we’re working these long hours, we’re not getting a linear increase in our output.
Why Running out of Work is a Good Thing
Squirrel: Got it. I imagine a number of our listeners are in that kind of situation. And I just want to make sure we get all the juice out of this grapefruit here. So there’s a final sentence, which is “and we don’t want them to run out of work.” I think there’s gold in there as well. To mix the metaphor. What do you think about that?
Jeffrey: Oh, so many things come to mind. Well, I think one thing is if I nicely balance this last sentence with the first one, about 110 percent, is it reminds me of the book Slack, which talks about the importance of having slack in the system.
Squirrel: And not the slack, the programme, which has its own challenges and merits and so on, but this is slack, its original sense, like slack in the rope.
Jeffrey: That’s right.
Squirrel: Not to be pulled taut, you want to have some extra wiggle room.
Jeffrey: Right. Slack was it was a book talking about human performance and human systems. And one of the things was that my major takeaway from reading that book is just sort of sum it up. It might be if you have no slack, you have no capacity to improve, you have no capacity to learn. And so what you’ve done with this model is to say, at best we’re going to get no better, because when you say “I don’t want them to run out of work” means I don’t want to have them ever have any time when they would stop and think about how they might improve. So you’re putting you’re saying, yep, whatever our capacity is today, it’s never going to get better and because, I would go further, because we’re at 110 percent we will never have time to recharge. So we’re going to, my expectation would be, we’re going to gradually decay over time. Either because people are going to be tired or they’ll be demoralised or all those corners that people have cut are going to start piling up. But my expectation is this is a well paved path to failure over time.
Squirrel: And I had a client just earlier today who was telling me actually he’d managed to improve his team’s performance quite a lot. And his main problem he was bringing to me was he wasn’t sure what to do with the time he now had and kept looking for things to be busy with. And I said, maybe what you need to do is pay off some of the debt of having been busy before and take a walk or have a bath or something, because you need to clear out some of the cobwebs.
Squirrel: And that was a thought he hadn’t had because he was feeling guilty about not being engaged every moment, kind of fixing the problems in the team. Suddenly the team’s performing well, so he has less to do. That I was pointing out to him was a good problem. That was something he could exploit and use because that would be a space for him to have slack and have better ideas. This team might do the same.
Jeffrey: And it’s interesting to me, because the idea of running out of work when I come across that my spidey senses go off and I think ‘this is a product organisation that is not measuring how good their product decisions are.’ My experience is that when you have a development team that’s working well, that the challenge is, that very often there isn’t work to do because you haven’t learned enough to know what to do. So here, I need to be clear work about creating end user software that will test some new hypothesis that we have. But there’s always lots of work to be done to improve the system to say, can we refactor our code? Can we can we improve our tests? Can we change our build system? Can we automate? Can we make things more resilient? Can we make the system so that it will be faster in the future? There’s always investments to be made that will make you fast when next you know what you want to do. And so for me, it’s very common. This idea of we need to keep the developers busy are people who think that development is their bottleneck. When in my experience in those cases, it’s almost always the real bottleneck is knowing what their clients actually value.
Squirrel: There we go. Well, there’s lots of juice we’ve got from that and lots of ideas that have come up and links in the show notes as usual and so on. And we’d love to hear from you folks if you are encountering any of these problems. Do you have an, “of course” attitude to overloading the team or do you underload the team? Are people doing under time? All of those are interesting ideas. We’d love to hear from you. You can find us at our Twitter and email and so on, which are all linked at Conversationaltransformation.com or AgileConversations.com. They all get to the same place. And of course, we like it when you hit the subscribe button so that you can hear from us again next time we’re on episode, I think 150 this time. So we’ve got a whole lot more to say and we’ll be back again next week.
Jeffrey: Thanks, Jeffrey.
Squirrel: Thanks, Squirrel.