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Optimization Magic Wand #2 - Short Cycles

If nothing else, the Agile movement has encouraged people to work in shorter cycles. But why does it work? Is it just the same work with smaller tasks in between? Is it so that your boss can micromanage you? Let’s dig in and find out.

The reason that short cycles (aka small batches) work is because of two things: 1) feedback loops and 2) the horizon of predictability.

Feedback loops. What do you do when you’ve spent 6 months on something, you finally finish your boss craps all over it? If you’re like me, you’ll dig your heels in. You put in so much effort, you need to defend your work! But what if you got that feedback the first week? You’d have plenty of time to adjust and you haven’t put that much effort into it.

Consider another example where you have dependencies on 6 other teams for your work. You plan carefully on when you need each thing from each team, and it all comes together at the end. If you missed something you are screwed. If you learn something along the way, you are also screwed. But if the teams give each other feedback along the way, they can iron out dependencies, course correct, and learn. You’ve distributed the intelligence in the hands of the team, instead of a single point of failure inside your head. If your organization requires a “single throat to choke” the bad news is that they won’t like distributed responsibility. The good news is there will be a lot less choking.

The Horizon of Predictability. This term comes from Chaos theory and it means that there is a line past which things move from Predictability into Chaos. I used to create Gantt charts that planned way past the Horizon of Predictability. For most organizations, the Horizon of Predictability is about 2-3 weeks. If you plan past that, it’s all fiction and you have to burn energy constantly correcting your plan. Do you want to spend energy adjusting your plan or do you want to spend it getting the work done? Please note, I’m not saying to fly by the seat of your pants, I do advocate Roadmaps. We’ll address Roadmaps in a future post.

Short cycles allow you to focus your energy below the Horizon of Predictability, which allows teams to have meaningful conversations and make trustworthy commitments. It absolves teams from spending time correcting plans that live in Chaos.

How have you leveraged short cycles? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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