Complexity and executive agility.

Complexity is the new normal. It is something that our employees deal with every day, and it is something that consistently challenges our executives and leadership teams too.

But what is complexity?

A lot of people believe that complexity means that you need to get all the experts together and allow them to figure things out but that’s just complicated stuff.

Things like civil engineering and construction environments. Environments where we pretty much know the answer and understand all the variables upfront. Environments where you can plan based on the 1,000 bridges you’ve built before and accurately forecast cost and time.

Complexity is when you get all the experts together and they still don’t get it right the first time because they are solving a problem that has never been solved before or building a product/feature that has never been built before.

It’s when those experts need to try things a few times, experiment, test hypotheses and maybe even repurpose a different invention to achieve their goals and objectives.

Sometimes, we need to have a little positive chaos where we give people the space and time they need to actively create and solve complex problems.

So, when executives and leaders ask teams when a specific product will be finished or when a specific project will be delivered, the answer is that they don’t know.

They don’t know what they don’t know and there are multiple unknown variables that could impact the team and their delivery capability.

You may insist that something must be done by Christmas but your team don’t know if they are capable of building that product/feature within that time frame and whether it will successfully achieve the product goal. 

A little home truth for you, ‘I don’t know’ is actually the correct answer.

The problem is that executives and leadership teams are extremely uncomfortable with the concept that a team don’t know the answer and don’t know how long it will take them to solve the problem.

So, what happens is that teams give executives and leadership teams some coping strategies.

Probabilistic Forecasting

A team would use probabilistic forecasting, for example, where they would calculate how much work has been done over a given period of time and use that as a frame of reference to forecast the probability of how much work will be delivered in the future.

They might estimate that there is an 85% chance that the team will deliver the product or solve the problem by November, based on their past performance, but that still leaves a 15% chance that they won’t be able to deliver within that estimated time frame.

The fact is that they simply don’t know how long it will take. They could have a breakthrough and deliver sooner or they could get slowed down by multiple problems that prevent them from delivering on time.

They simply don’t know but they attempt to provide leadership teams with estimates because that is what they are being forced to do.

It is incredibly hard for them to tell leadership teams that they simply don’t know.

Forecasts are often wrong because they are uncertain. They are an attempt to provide some degree of certainty but ultimately are misleading because the team simply cannot know what they will encounter and how long it will take to overcome those challenges.

When you ask people when something will be done, the best they can do is provide you with a forecast based on the latest information they have.

What I hope you will choose to do, instead, is focus on how we can deliver value sooner.

Explore what you could do sooner and focus all the team’s attention, capability, and resources on achieving that value and delivering it to the customer.

Maybe we can test some of our assumptions. Maybe we can run some experiments. 

You may discover that the team thought that they needed to do this big thing but actually, there is a much smaller element that delivers greater value to customers, and the team can focus on realising that value and getting that work done.

So, when you are asking people when something will be done, be kind to them because they simply don’t know, and they are probably nervous about telling you that they don’t know.

They are trying to give you some confidence because you want to see a milestone achieved on a Gantt chart but they simply don’t know and can’t know until its done.

As an executive or leader, you need to see the problems your team are facing and you need to see how they are dealing with those problems and the complexity of producing a valuable product.

You need to get involved and help the team work through those problems and overcome the challenges they face.

Deletion 1 – Stop Imposing Deadlines on Teams

So, as an executive or agile leader, one of the first deletions I want you to focus on is to stop imposing deadlines on teams.

Consult with the teams and see what they consider as a reasonable time frame to deliver something.

I understand that there are some realistic deadlines that the teams simply must deliver on, but your team simply don’t know the answer so potentially it is better to invest in regular forecasting based on the latest information that the team have.

I’ve had some major deliveries where the initial forecast for delivery was a 45% chance to deliver within the timeframe that they wanted it done.

But we did deliver because we knew that we were in trouble. And because we were able to admit that we were able to get everybody out of the way and prioritise our efforts to ensure that the product was successfully delivered on time.

So, get used to uncertainty and get used to teams communicating in an uncertain way, and maybe get comfortable with the idea that ‘we don’t know’ is ok.

It allows you to do away with probabilistic forecasting and instead, look at what the team did last and decide on what the team are going to focus on next.

Give it a go. Uncertainty. Embrace it.

John Coleman has deep experience and expertise working with executives, leadership teams and product development teams to achieve increased business agility and create environments where creativity and collaboration produce high-performance teams.

If you are interested in helping your team or organization achieve greater agility and want to explore agile training options, visit our training page.

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Agile,Agile Leadership,Executive Agility
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