Secrets of Speed #4: Getting Small

If you want to maximize throughput of your production system you must plan and you must prioritize – ruthlessly. But all too often executive teams unload this crucial work onto subordinates, which  is both wasteful and unfair.

While we want to avoid micromanagement, it’s also important to provide clear direction about where we want to go. It’s important to tell a cab driver where you’re heading, but counter-productive to tell them every time they’ll need to turn on the turn signal.

Finding the right level of granularity of planning between vagueness and micromanagement is crucial and this happens via interaction and conversation.

As I said in previous pieces it’s important to break work into small chunks and then limit the number of chunks being worked on. Planning is the process of breaking big chunks into smaller ones and prioritization is handled by stack-ranking the chunks against each other.

Many organizations struggle to break work  into smaller pieces. A common anti-pattern in planning is for business leaders to give vague detailed and urgent direction “build me this feature now” rather than starting a conversation “our customers value this capability, what would it take to get there?”

There is too much open to interpretation in the beginning and too little conversation and participation along the way. This is one reason engineering-lead organizations like Spotify, facebook and google have been so successful. The people building the product also direct it.

Not including the people building the product in the planning process wastes time and energy – and it tends to erode motivation and goodwill. It will turn  teams into compliant order-takers, rather than the engaged problem solvers you need.

The most important thing you can do to solve for this is to create collaborative in-person planning sessions where the people who lead the product direction have difficult trade-off conversations with the people who build the product.

You want to have extensive up front conversations and deeply challenge your thinking about value (customer benefit) and cost (the time, complexity, and uncertainty) of building it. And then break this work into the smallest chunks possible.

Why small chunks? Planning is always an act of speculation. We are making assumptions about what our customers will find most valuable and also making assumptions about how much time and energy it will take to deliver that value.

Building most complex and innovative products requires we integrate a variety of perspectives (diversity), a variety of skills (knowledge and capability), and our own insights over time (learning).

Upfront conversations and thoughtful team building handle the first two and working in small chunks allows you to steer dynamically as you discover what customers really value – e.g. what they pay for and actually use.

These practices create opportunities for continuous learning as an organization – so your team and your product can improve over time.

It’s impossible to be a learning organization unless you’re deliberate about learning and it’s impossible to learn if you’re not measuring how well you’re doing. The smaller the time horizon you measure against the faster you steer.

Space shuttles and bicycles are rarely directly on target. They do subtle and frequent course corrections accounting for variations in conditions with a small window of time between when they sense a change and respond to it.

Your goal should be for your organization to have a similar ability to sense changes and respond to them. Without small chunks of actual value being delivered to actual customers on a regular basis you’ll be starving for good information.

Small chunks are motivating and provide good information. They also are extremely challenging to articulate and to get a leadership team to agree on. In later installments I’ll discuss how to build a culture that handles conflict and integrated decision-making well.

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