Parkinson’s Law & Agile – How to Use the “Uh Oh Effect” to Promote Agility

What is Parkinson’s Law?

Parkinson’s Law is a rampant idea, though many don’t know the idea by this name.  Parkinson’s Law states that:

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”

Parkinson’s Law was proposed by Cyril Parkinson in 1955 in a satirical article that mocked government bureaucracy, so it was likely never intended to be taken seriously. [1]

However, this idea often has legs.  After all, we’ve all had experiences where a time crunch inspires an amazing amount of work to be completed in a short amount of time. Maybe you managed to learn a semester’s worth of material in the week leading up to the final exam. Or had a project with a tight deadline that inspired a heroic effort.

Or perhaps you’ve been on the flip side of this law, where work without a deadline expands:

Parkinson’s Law is Supported by Science

Evolution Research Sets the Stage

It turns out that Parkinson’s Law is actually supported by science.  The story beings with research on evolution from Niles Eldridge and Stephen Gould.

The prevailing theory of evolution was that it occurred in a smooth, upwards progression. Eldridge and Gould discovered that for many species, evolution was not a smooth progression, but long periods of relative stability with short bursts of change. This is called the “punctuated equilibrium” model:

Gersick Discovers the “Uh Oh Effect”

Connie Gersick was researching organizational behavior to discover how teams complete projects.  She studied 8 groups of teams of various size (3-12 people), different project lengths (7 days to 6 months), across different domains.

She found that progress was not linear like the phyletic gradualism model. Instead, the groups made progress that resembled the punctuated equilibrium model – long stints of stagnation followed by bursts of intense progress. [2]

The interesting finding is that what prompted the shift was consistent across the groups. It was the halfway point of the deadline.

We call this the “Uh Oh Effect” – seemingly halfway through the course of the project, the teams collectively said “Uh oh,” and adjusted their approaches to allow more effective progress.

How to Leverage the “Uh Oh Effect” for Agility

People don’t like to talk about Parkinson’s Law, or the “Uh Oh Effect” in the context of organizational Agility because it often promotes waterfall-like behaviors.  Leaders use this idea to set overly-ambitious deadlines for big chunks of work to ensure that work gets done in a timely manner:

This is inherently waterfall behavior, but I also argue that it’s inefficient. Remember, based on Gersick’s research, that regardless of project length, the first half of the project is largely ineffective. Only at the temporal midpoint does the team say “Uh oh,” and identify more effective ways of working, and make huge movement forward in a punctuated equilibrium type of progress.

I believe knowing about Parkinson’s Law and the “Uh Oh Effect” should lead us to thinking in smaller units of work and smaller time blocks. Remember, that the first half of the timebox isn’t very effective, regardless of the size of the timebox. So use smaller timeboxes to increase the numbers of “Uh Oh’s” that your team gets.

 

[1] https://medium.com/the-mission/parkinsons-law-why-constraints-are-the-best-thing-you-can-work-with-4fad6e0e91cf

[2] https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED504567.pdf

Roman and Greek Team Norms Session

I made this clip to document a technique I created to run a Team Norms building session for a team.  It’s a two-part technique that allows for rapid brainstorming for the first half and a deeper dive into tricky team issues for the second half.

 

This technique was a big hit with my team, and I think this is a great technique if you’re going to run a team norms session for your team!

 

12 Agile Principles

While this is too much content to clone onto this forum, myself and 2 colleagues put together a nice series on the 12 Principles of Agile. This series tackles common problems that organizations face in achieving each Principle.
This series is near and dear to my heart. I find that working with the 12 Agile Principles can be a great guiding light to fostering better Agility.

Check out the first part of the 12 part blog series here!

The Three Things Agilists Can Learn From Wonder Woman

Paradise Island

Superhero stories are the parables of our time and that’s why even mere mortal Agilists can learn some lessons from these crusaders. Don’t worry if you don’t have a tiara or a lasso of truth; there are still plenty of things you can learn from Wonder Woman.

Let’s set the stage–Diana Prince, Wonder Woman, lives in Themyscira on the Paradise Islands among the Amazons. The Amazons are warriors who spend most of their time training and consider themselves the most elite fighters in the world. The Paradise Islands are living up to their name until one day, the German army arrives. Which shouldn’t be a problem, right? These are the most elite warriors in the world. But unfortunately, that doesn’t end up being the case.

The Germans have guns and the Amazonian archers aren’t equipped to handle that tech. Eventually the Amazons do win, but it takes a literal heroic effort from an actual superhero to help them make it through this battle.

Get Off the Island

The first agile lesson we can learn from this scene is to get off the island. As lovely as that island is or maybe your comfort zone is– don’t isolate yourself. As an Agilist, make sure you’re working within your community and going to local meetups. Being involved can help you stay relevant and frankly more Agile.

When the Germans begin firing their weapons, you can see the bewilderment on the faces of the Amazons. Don’t be like the Wonder Woman here; make sure you’re getting out there and seeing what is new. It will keep you from watching the bullet fly right by your face. You don’t want the first time you’re seeing a piece of technology to be when it’s already starting to overtake you.

Make Sure Your Goals Are Clear as a Team

Were the Amazons really trying to be the best warriors in the world or the just the best archers? It seems if they had aligned their goals they might have been better prepared for this unexpected attack. When you’re working with your teams think about what your end goal truly is. Make sure you align everyone with what you are trying to do and make sure you know what you’re striving for.

Don’t Let Superhero Syndrome Mask Your Deficiencies

Everyone has probably been a part of a project where you witnessed the superhero mentality. This is when someone comes in and pulls all kinds of crazy hours to save a project last a minute. As Agilists, we want to make sure that even if we do get saved by a superhero that it doesn’t stop us from continuously improving. After this battle, do you think the Amazons actually learned about this new technology and leveraged it in their future battles? I’m not sure, but I do know that if you stop learning and improving as you go along it’s easy to be left behind.

What’s New in SAFe 4.5?

SAFe version 4.5 was released on 6/21, and I’ve been excited to dig in and see the changes.  Check out the official site for more details on change.  Here are some of the changes I’m most excited to see.

Making SAFe Easier to Handle

Big Picture Scaling

The SAFe 4.0 Big Picture can be overwhelming, especially when expanding to 4 levels.  SAFe has made 4 different views of the Big Picture that limit the focus of the model, depending on the organization’s need.

Part of this change gives better guidance to organizations on how to adopt subsets of the full Big Picture.  With this change, SAFe has adopted some of the lean agile mindset to the process of adopting SAFe – start with an MVP, and build Features on top of that as needed.

Implementation Roadmap

This isn’t 100% new in 4.5 – the implantation roadmap did exist in 4.0 as well. However, the Roadmap has replaced the implementing 123 article on the Big Picture.

SAFe has recognized that there’s more to implementing a successful SAFe environment than simply training all the relevant people involved.

There’s a specific emphasis in the new roadmap on identifying Value Streams and creating ARTs within the Value Streams – a hugely important factor to get right up front.  ARTs aren’t particularly helpful if they aren’t properly aligned with a value stream.  Either you have multiple value streams within an ART, which weakens the power of an ART, and creates a divide.  Or you could have an ART where the value stream actually cuts across multiple portfolios, which creates a huge mess.  Getting this right up front saves a huge amount of time and frustration for the teams and programs, so it’s great that SAFe has baked this into the implementation guidelines.

Lean Startup Mentality

SAFe has explicitely and heavily incorporated the lean startup idea into the model.  There is a newly placed emphasis on incorporating the “Build-measure-learn” lean startup cycle (which SAFe has expanded to “Hypothesize-build-measure-learn”) into all levels.  This has caused a number of small and larger changes to the model.

Lean Startup Cycle

This is one of my personal favorite changes to the SAFe model.  SAFe has tied the lean startup model directly across the Portfolio and Program layer.  This emphasizes one of the underlying principles of Agile – build lean, release, and only build more features if the MVP is worth building upon.

It also clarifies that work continues on the MVP until the tradeoffs suggest working on something else more valuable.

Continuous Delivery Pipeline and Dev Ops

SAFe has recognized that to release lots of MVPs, you need to have the Continuous Delivery Pipeline and Dev Ops to support it.   SAFe explicitly calls out both of these on the big picture to emphasize the importance.

Other Goodies

Compliance

SAFe has added an Agile version of Compliance to the Big Picture.  Compliance often lives in a Waterfall world, clashing with IT efforts to run Agile.

This is a great first step, and I hope that SAFe will look into other regulations that large enterprises face that often run in Waterfall, such as legal reviews.

SAFe Program Consultant (SPC)

The SPC has been added to the Big Picture.  SAFe is recognizing the need for additional help beyond the existing roles to help stand up and perpetuate a successful SAFe implementation.

I would encourage organizations to be careful about falling into the “Certification Trap.”  While a few of the training activities require an SPC to deliver, the majority of the SPC responsibilities can be executed by an experienced non-SPC coach.

SAFe 4.5 – A Leaner, More Experiment Heavy SAFe

The two major themes in SAFe 4.5 are an emphasis on experimentation through the Lean Startup Mentality and creating new tools that make SAFe itself scalable depending on the size and needs of the organization.  SAFe has leaned itself down as small as the Essential SAFe level.

Organizations that are considering SAFe can now combine these two mentalities in their adoption of SAFe.  They can start small and lean with an MVP of Essential SAFe, and evaluate the experiment.  If it works well, they can add new features to a larger version of SAFe, or abandon the experiment entirely.

With SAFe 4.5, I hope that organizations are now able to take these lean, experimental ideas not just into their software development, but also into their own adoption or expansion of SAFe.