Two unspeakable Silver Bullets?

There are no silver bullets” wrote the late, great, Fred Brooks. Consequently most writers and evangelists avoid claiming they have a silver bullet even when it sounds like they are claiming just that. I’ve cautioned against silver bullets several times in this blog. I often find myself telling clients “The devil is in the detail.” Meaning: there are lots of things to address and no single big fixes.

Anyone claiming to have found a silver bullet deserves to be faced by scepticism. Still…

I find myself coming back to two solutions again and again. They are the closest thing to silver bullets I know. Even if these are not silver bullets in their own right applying either makes it easier to work the detail and tackle problems.

Yet these silver bullets dare not speak their name. To do so risks endless debate and damaging your own leverage.

Keep reading for the Silver Bullets

Writing this I’m avoiding naming the potential silver bullets because I even feel many readers will stop reading the moment I name them. Please, keep reading.

Both are widely discussed by the agile cognoscenti but both are controversial. Suggesting either may lead people to think you fail to comprehend the situation or are just stupid. Thus in both cases you are likely to end up in long discussions.

Both are disliked by opposite ends of the organizational hierarchy. Both ends are optimistic, and prefer to believe people should be able to rectify problems themselves (the people problem problem again.)

Both bullets are rarely applied with vigour. Perhaps because of the previous points. When I raise the points people plea helplessness, “My boss doesn’t understand.”

Both bullets scale: in the small and large, although they manifest themselves in different ways at different scale points.

Neither is an instant fix but both start to deliver returns relatively quickly. The problem with both is you need to keep the faith and keep applying them for weeks to see a difference. In both cases, people often give up before they see the benefit.

Bullet #1: work Test First

Specifically in technical teams applying Test First coding; whether Automated Unit Testing (e.g. TDD, test driven (first) development), Behaviour Driven Development (BDD) or some other form of Acceptance Test Driven Development (ATDD). Away from code, at team and organizational levels OKRs are implement the test first principle.

Test first will not fix all problems but it will remove a substantial number of problems. That makes managing the remaining ones easier. And as to where the “extra time” comes from, that is easy: the time you don’t spend fixing defects and misunderstandings. Test first is faster than debug later.

I’ve written a lot about test first so I won’t say more just now.

Bullet #2: reduce Work in Progress (WIP)

Most commonly WIP limits are applied through limited columns on a Kanban board or limiting the work taken into a sprint. Done right OKRs limit WIP too. However, reducing WIP requires discipline.

At the higher levels companies and Government entities seem quick to reduce staffing numbers but slow to reduce work. Accepting new “projects” is easy but resourcing them difficult. Rather than prioritise, say “No” and push back on work, everything is taken on. Individuals who push back as seen as pessimists, “not team players” and “obstacles.” Pushing back does not help your chance of getting promoted so leadership ranks tend to be populated by those who accept.

The result is salami sliced people and slow progress across a broad front rather than rapid progress across a narrow range. But, reducing WIP also seems to be the hardest medicine to administer. In fact, I sometimes find myself hiding WIP reduction measures.

As an aside, I feel WIP has gotten worse since the pandemic struck, the move to remote working means every conversation is now a meeting in the diary. Our diaries are now overrun with “Meeting WIP”. An ad hoc 10 minute conversation at the coffee machine is now a 30 minute Zoom call planned days in advance.

WIP reduction is applicable at all levels: reduce the number of pieces of work the individual is switching between, reduce the number of pieces of work teams are tackling, reduce the number of projects a department has in flight, and most of all: reduce strategic WIP.

Next time

There are lots of benefits of reducing WIP so let me ask: why is WIP so difficult to reduce? – that is the question I’ll address next time. So too is Why don’t people Test First?

Finally I’ll just note: I sometimes wonder why I stop being an OKR-cynical to learned to like them. The thing is, I see OKRs as a tool to address both these problems: OKRs are test first, and limiting OKRs is WIP limiting.


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