Devolving to Waterfall (Part 1)

Context: A multi-part entry about how fast, responsive teams devolve into slower teams as a result of what seems like reasonable and completely rational decisions. I hope to understand when the turning points are and think about what other options existed, so I can either prevent them or turn them around in the teams and organisations I work with. I’m keen for some feedback so please email me (emailpat@[thisdomain]) or leave me a comment!

Imagine that one day, a business had a fantastic new idea to do something revolutionary. They manage to get a team of people together, develop some software for it and get it deployed. It’s a huge success, and the customers and business are happy. They work hard to get features out as soon they are ready (developed, tested and passing Quality Assurance) so that customers can use it as soon as possible. Daily deployments into production are the norm.

Things get bigger over time and the team starts to grow larger. The team can no longer keep up with the pace of requests and deploy the software as well, so they hire a “Release Engineer” who can deploy it instead. The team is ecstatic as they can focus on producing workable software, but then a manager turns around to see the Release Engineer sitting around. He says, ‘Hey, there’s someone who’s doesn’t appear to be working full time. Let’s get him involved on another project.’ To maintain order, the Release Engineer is only available to the team one day a week to do anything. Any new features that the team develops now take a week to appear instead of when the features are ready.

Lesson: Over-optimising locally affects your ability to respond quickly and effectively by adding waiting time to the cycle time.

Solution: Understand the system as a whole and don’t over-optimise. Generate solutions that might have been more effective (i.e. The Release Engineer works half a day on each project and can shift days about when needed).

Notes: I see this all the time at client projects when teams are split into their “functional” areas and need to juggle simultaneous projects about. Context switching constantly over email, IM, telephone and a person sitting there waiting for something to be done prevents them actually getting any work done.