The Lack of Trust Problem

Agile Coaching.

Mar 04, 2022  ·  Scott Nepia

Agile Coaching

I often think I'm the luckiest person to be able to do what I do. I get to work with the smartest folk and solve gnarly problems with different teams. I get to help people do their best work together. What’s not to like?

But when your job is to try and help people change the way they work, sometimes it’s baffling how things pan out.

This is a story not a bug

Here’s a conversation from a team I worked with recently:

Team member 1: We've got a production bug
Team member 2
: What's the impact? Does it need to be done now? Or can we put it on the backlog? ?
Team: <some discussion>
Product Owner
: This is urgent! But it's tricky because this problem has been there for a long time and it looks more like a feature. And we don't have any more funding for feature work. I'll see if another team can pick it up.
Me (the coach) <ears pricking up>: But if this is the best team to do the work and it's urgent, shouldn't we just jump on it?
PO: Unfortunately we've run out of funding for capex work. It will need to go to another team.
Me (the coach): hmmm

Digging a little deeper

Have you been in this situation before? I get that there are always challenges but to me this just seemed nuts! We prioritise good experiences for customers and this particular issue clearly was having a negative impact on customer experience. Solving this bug would surely qualify for urgent attention.

I dug a little deeper. I sat down with the PO (who was awesome) and he explained that the team no longer had any capex budget and feature work came under capex. But although this was a very small fix (estimated at around $2000 to resolve - keep this in mind), he would need to reach out to the right channels to get it done.

2 weeks later

As often happens when work leaves the team the likelihood of it getting done soon starts to diminish. What happened next was classic - an endless email discussion around what type of work it was and who should own it. This was followed by meetings with stakeholders and management to clarify and eventually determine who should do the work. Two weeks later the discussion had gone full circle and the issue came back to the team to fix.

The numbers

I ran a rough estimate for the cost of this process of coming to a decision about who should do the work: 20 hours of meetings with 5 people, assuming an average hourly cost of about $65, makes $6,500. Remember that the original cost estimate was $2000.

This additional cost is one of those things that seems bonkers. But wait, there’s more! Let’s not forget the cost of delaying this ‘priority’ fix to the business and ultimately the customer - a huge consideration. I wanted to get a 'finger in the air' assessment on how this would impact the customer. I asked the PO for an estimate from 1-5, 1 being no impact and 5 being a show stopper. Between 2-3, said the PO. Now this obviously lacks precision but when you start to consider it with the other data points you can see the costs adding up.

So the cost of discussing the problem in the end was over 3 times the cost of fixing it. The weeks of delay were problematic for the business and ultimately had a negative impact on the customer.

What was the root cause?

Despite aiming for a system that prioritised outcomes over outputs, the team funding was based along traditional capex and opex lines along with layers of decision-making. Ultimately this created a system that placed a lot of emphasis on governance, resulting in very little trust in the team.

Leap of faith

In this instance there was a very real impact of overly heavy handed governance versus giving the team more autonomy. There should be trust that the teams are closest to the problem and best placed to resolve it quickly.

Knowing where the boundaries are takes some trial and error. Many organisations still work in very traditional structures and it can take a leap of faith from the business to support new ways of working. If we want to have better outcomes for our customers we need to make this leap of faith and as coaches we can help teams and management take the first steps.

What other impacts do you see ‘lack of trust’ having on teams?

Categories: Agile Coaching.

Tags: trust, Team, governance, decision-making.