A Practical Approach to Agility and Product Management

Tag: process

Reducing Variability and the Airport Omelette

Like many times before, I was sitting in my favorite airport restaurant before my first flight and enjoyed my typical egg white omelette. Then I questioned myself: why don’t I eat breakfast at home instead and leave later for the airport? That didn’t feel right (apart from the fact that my home cooked omelettes don’t taste as good), until I realized there was a deeper reason for it: Eating at home meant leaving later, which would increase the likelihood of hitting traffic on the road and longer lines in the airport. Leaving later would also reduce the safety buffer I can rely on if something unforeseen happens. If worst came to worst, I could skip my airport breakfast and chow down a bar instead and still make my flight. If I ate at ours have that safety buffer.

Taking a step back, making a flight as well as completing work projects on time is about increasing predictability. One way to do that is to reduce schedule and other risks by eliminating variability early on in the process. So if a project consists of multiple sequential steps, it makes sense to eliminate variables as early as possible and take on those tasks that have the highest possible variability first (assuming the tasks can be resequenced accordingly).

This is very much in line with Agile’s recommendation to take on those stories and features with the highest level of technical risk first. It’s all about reducing risk and increasing predictability.

Wait, you might say, doesn’t SAFe propose to preserve options and defer decisions till the last responsible moment? Yes. If these options bear the same amount of risk and variability, doing so may not necessarily increase project duration and risk, but it certainly doesn’t remove variability early on. The goal here is to stay responsive to changes in market and business demands and not place technical bets until necessary.

In practice, one will need to find the right sweet spot between reducing variability and preserving options as those two approaching are some what opposites sides of the same continuum. SAFe practitioners are, at the end of the day, also incentivized to be predictable and meet PI commitments, if possible.

Now that I understand why my usual airport omelette actually helps me make my early flight, I will certainly keep my eyes open for other opportunities in my life to reduce variability and increase predictability where it matters.

Views of Organizations – Mechanistic or Humanistic?

During conversations with various individuals about Agile organizations, I realized that, more often than not, there are two main ways they seem to think about them:

The Mechanistic View

org-chartWhen people take a mechanistic view of an organization, they believe it can successfully and exhaustively be described through its structure and processes. There are clear inputs and outputs that can and should be measured (and shown on dashboards). Clear correlations and relationships exist and metrics are driven through use of known “levers”. Order is created by following consistent processes and best practices. The people that make up these organizations are “resources” and certainly play an important role, but at end of the day it’s about hiring, training, retaining and measuring engagement. This world has clear rules and could be described by a good deterministic model with underlying predictable formulas and mechanisms. At its foundation, this view of organizations is rooted in Taylorism and management principles from the industrial revolution.

The Humanistic View

casOn the other side of the spectrum, we find individuals thinking of an organization in humanistic terms. Organizations are organic and the sum of the individuals and teams they are made up of. These “cells” form an organism that often doesn’t follow predictable rules but functions through complex interactions and relationships that often escape the attempt of description via simple mathematical models. While org charts and processes do exist, the humanistic view accepts that these are solely simplistic attempts at describing how such an organization really works. This thinking is more in line with the theory of complex adaptive systems. Complex human beings are the building blocks of these organizations who deserve to be motivated and communicated to, their potential should be unlocked and they should be allowed to organize around problems and solve them. Instead of processes, we find emphasis on culture, values and principles. At its core, this point of view evolved from more recent research and thinking about how organizations, which are nowadays occupied predominantly by knowledge workers, function.


Which of these views is “right”? As Agilists we certainly gravitate more towards the humanistic view. Nonetheless, both views are valid and valuable models describing organizations knowing that a model is itself defined as a (over-) simplified representation of an entity, so it can never be fully accurate. At the end of the day, both these views can prove useful given the right circumstances as long as we deliberately choose which one to use and understand its potential shortcomings. I do believe, though, that the humanistic view pays better tribute to the complexity of today’s world. What gets us in trouble is when, based on traditional management training, we are hard-wired to only take the mechanistic view without being able to acknowledge the complex inner workings of today’s businesses and that in the end we need to trust and rely on people to make our organizations successful.