Giant Slalom

A lot of people are thinking about their winter sports plans, as we move through autumn. At the same time, a lot of people are getting into the swing of projects that kicked off in September. The second group have a set of constraints. Just for clarity, I am an architect, and a bit of a snowboarding thug, so we’ll concentrate on how this thinking can enable delivery teams, and their customers to get the best out of projects.

When I’m working with organisations that want to accelerate delivery, I often see the delivery teams sprint off in the wrong direction. This is not to say that they won’t deliver something, using their approach, broadly to schedule. When I say wrong, I mean that the course taken to achieve the end result, may not have taken in key objectives, which were lost as the delivery Juggernaut gathered pace.

The thing with accelerating delivery, new style, is that it conveniently side-steps the balancing act between cost, specification, and time. Often this is a reason to scapegoat agile practice, when the customer is presented with exactly what they asked for, but none of the things they didn’t. It is why great agile coaches are careful not to lead the customer. They know there is a real danger in telling a customer in the business that they can have something sooner if they forego some low level detail. They know that the customer never hears the if.

Customers, especially internal customers, are not well placed to be objective when presented with ways to accelerate delivery. If you can get something quicker, you’re winning right? Well thankfully, in most cases there are cross functional concerns like architecture, UX, dev-ops, etc., which can help to ensure that important details are not lost in the rush to deliver.

All too often though, I hear these cross functional teams complaining that their concerns aren’t being listened to. I always encourage cross functionals to act as enablers, as opposed to gatekeepers. Usually the gatekeeper approach just leads to side stepping, and a lot of frustration all round. It is important for cross functionals to support good governance by establishing their requirements in such a way that delivery teams can maintain the best velocity, whilst ensuring they comply. Hopefully this is starting to show the link between slalom skiing and accelerated software delivery.

Teams must be allowed enough flexibility to improve their processes, tooling, and output quality. That final quality is only achieved by passing through all the ‘gates’. People who know me, will know that I am no fan of gatekeepers, but slalom flies under my radar-by having gates that are always open. Passing through gates with as little friction as possible is the goal for skiers and developers alike. It is the choice of line that separates the winners from the also rans.

Using this thinking is the key to unlock the potential for delivery teams and cross functional teams to improve process and quality. The gates, in the delivery lifecycle, are the opportunity for governance from cross functional concerns to be applied, like security, architecture, and user experience in a constructive way that empowers teams to innovate. Likewise, delivery teams have an opportunity to inform cross functional teams of emergent practice as they progress. Governance creates cards on delivery boards, and delivery draws on cross-functional support in a manageable fashion. This enabling behaviour between teams with different focuses, lets organisations benefit from the innovation potential in small agile teams, and makes it so that they can rely on these innovations to carry the values of the organisation forwards.