And why is over committing a problem?
One of the base Agile Principles is that we try to set things up so that Teams operate at a sustainable pace. When Teams hear about this there is general excitement that it might be possible, that they might be able to restore some kind of work / life balance.
Then there is the belief that “they won’t let us do that around here.” This is a rational concern in many organizations as Management often believes that being busy is a sign of being productive and useful, and that management tools like “stretch goals” and “mandatory overtime” will result in increased delivery of value.
Coaches are aware of this, and so coach management that they need to be very positive about how they want to have a sustainable pace. Management (often though coaching) understand that they have an interest in a plan based on reality to improve the predictability of work delivered. They begin to understand that to improve how much is delivered (throughput) they cannot overload the Team as this increases the amount of work-in-progress. They begin to realize that one reason the organization are annoying their customers is that we say we will do something, and then fail to meet that commitment simply because there is too much work to get done. In other words Management has a reason to be positive about the sustainable pace and can be authentic in their delivery. They are looking forward to the day when the Team makes and meets commitments more often than not.
But still it inevitably happens. All the work is now visible so we know Teams are trying to take on more than is realistically possible. We try to help the Team, but they don’t seem to be able to do anything about it.
Perhaps we leave it this time. “They’ll learn when they don’t make it.” But the next time it happens, and the next time, and the next time. But now it’s worse. The original excitement that Agile will deliver a work / life balance is gone since the Team has to work hard to meet the commitments they made.
I’ve seen this pattern happen over and over again. I once ran a survey of 65 Teams and found that the average overcommit of the Teams was 42% and that about 69% of Teams over-committed on a regular basis.
The question we have to ask ourselves is “why?” After all, no one is forcing the Team to do this, right? Management thinking is correct - if we don’t address the problem we will remain unpredictable in our delivery, and have reduced throughput due to high work in progress. Over time, we will further reduce throughput due to a reduction in engagement of the Team. Worse, our customers will see no improvement in our ability to make and meet commitments.
My view is that there are a number of factors which contribute at the individual and Team level:
And sometimes Management do not help the situation:
In many ways these are all examples of short term thinking that has huge consequences in the long term.
The question is “what can we do to improve the situation?”
There are some obvious things we can do. Firstly, we can help our Teams understand that these drivers exist and create problems for ourselves. Sometimes a simple discussion based on raising awareness will help. This is true of both the above individual as well as management factors which lead to over committing. For example:
We also might try a more “culture oriented” approach. For example, we could adopt a mantra like “under-commit and over-deliver”. We would set the cultural expectation that it is OK to under-commit so long as we meet the resultant expectation. Some Management will worry than this will mean that Teams will slack off. The data above shows that we do not have this problem in reality. And wouldn’t you love to be in the room when a Team reports to the customer saying “we were able to complete the committed items and, since we had spare capacity, we also delivered this high priority item you were wanting.” BTW: I have actually seen this happen.
Often these approaches have been tried and you still find a pattern of over commitment. In these situations the Team might want to set up a single subject Retrospective to discuss approaches to improve. This might be a place to discuss the issue, raise awareness of factors, and review possible approaches. I suspect that when you ask the Team, there will be other, more specific factors and potential approaches to take.
For example, one factor that we often see is that while overcommit data is available, it is also ignored. It’s just a number on the screen. One idea to make this more visceral is to hand out tokens which represent capacity and as people plan work, take the appropriate number of tokens away. Watch for an interesting discussion to develop when people run out of tokens and still have more demand (“we have to get this done!”)
And finally we could also consider other more direct and experimental approaches. For example:
Note: These ideas can be applied at all levels of Iteration - a Team 2 week cadence, a Program quarterly cadence.
The bottom line is that over commitment is a problem that needs to be addressed if we really want to achieve a sustainable pace for the Teams, manage the expectations of our customers, ensure good work / life balance for our people increasing their engagement, and increase throughput.