Being lean in ’17

Most New Year resolutions end in failure for a simple reason. The goal was too big and appeared insurmountable.
In the title I apply the word lean in a different sense than most people might do at this time of the year, but we can use the two interpretations to make a point.

In business and technology we use “lean and agile principles” to make change or progress acheiveable.

There are many books on the subject, such as The Phoenix Project or Lean Enterprise; the former being a weird, but good business help text dressed up as a novel. The latter is a more traditional business book, but with good points for scaling with lean. I will however try to give a simple interpretation to get started.

We might want to get a new or improved product to market later in the year using different skills present in a team, but fail because we cannot plan reliably for project dependencies and human impact 6 months in advance. We also don’t know whether we’re going to end up with exactly what our customers need as markets and technology are continuously changing while “fully-planned”, “long-term” projects are “in-flight”.

Those often misplaced phrases in quotation marks are common and usually make peoples’ eyes roll, but this can be fixed.

What we tend to do in business is mix up goals and initiatives with activity and delivery.

Goals are great, they tell us what we’re aiming for, but don’t necessarily tell us how we’re going to achieve them. 

The same principles apply to those of us who want to make personal changes; for example, getting fit.

Let’s take a goal of getting fit and being able to run 10k. People fail because they are unfit and try to run a 10k (or even 5k) initially, find out they can’t after a couple of tries, get depressed, then quit. However, if that first run was 1 or 2k and you completed it, think how good that would feel! You could celebrate some success and almost certainly drive yourself to go faster or longer; celebrating lots of successes along the way.

You can apply that same logic to almost any goal-based activity; climbing a mountain, hiking a glacier – ok, I’m taking a lot of inspiration from my recent trip to Iceland….. but, hopefully you get the point. 

Imagine a simple 3-layer hierarchy, top-down of Goals, Initiatives and Sprints(Delivery). Goals (get fit) are made up of Initiatives (increase distance by 1k per fortnight until 10k is reached), which are then executed by Sprints (literally in this example). Each level influences each other on the way down, as things become more tangible and impact on the way up, as we start to see the results of our efforts at a macro-level.

A further point to note is that you must have an understanding of your capacity to complete work.

Imagine if you committed to your initiatives (training schedule) and started running, but someone gave you another training plan. Could you do twice the number of runs at the same time? Would this increase your chance of failure? Perhaps you could finish your first training plan and then start the next.

If your business is running multiple roadmaps and sprint delivery plans with the same team, there is a high chance that you will misunderstand capacity to complete work and fail one or even all of your planned initiatives.

This doesn’t mean that businesses cannot complete multiple activities across multiple teams at the same time, but you do need a clear understanding of resource contention or you risk never finishing any projects.

Another common misconception is that lean/agile means doing more work concurrently or at greater speed. In fact, we need to look out for the latest craze of using the word “agile” to punish people who don’t do what the speaker wants. I’m sure many shudder at the thought of those ill-advised words; “that’s not very agile, is it?”.

The point is that lean/agile means you can achieve more by doing fewer things more frequently; removing bottlenecks efficiently and understanding dependencies easily. After all, it is much better to complete 1 or 2 things, than not complete 50.

Have a look around your business and even your personal life and see if you could benefit from making a lean and agile start to the year.

If this has been useful – please check out The Phoenix Project or Lean Enterprise for more help. Also, try Trello at home or work for free.

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