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4 Things you must ask of your development teams

Expert Knowledge Alan Willett

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As a leader of an organization imagine for a moment that you know you need a new feature created, such as for your software product. You believe it will generate significant new revenue.

When do you really want that feature to be complete and deployed to your customers?

The honest answer to that question is today. Moreover, often, yesterday would have been even better answer.

Thus, development teams working on our needed projects are already behind what leaders wish could be true. The reality is more troubling than being behind on the wishes. Most development projects finish later than our conservative expectations and are too often beset with quality problems in testing and with customers.

Part of the problem is what leaders ask for at the start of projects. The most frequently stated need I have seen in project kick-offs is the need for speed. The focus is almost entirely on the need to meet specific dates. This constant focus on schedule often leads to behaviors by the development team that are incompatible with a good outcome.

To overcome those bad behaviors, leaders need to embed the following four obligations in the DNA of every development team. Leaders must clearly express high expectations for each of these obligations the start of the project and throughout the running of the project.

Obligation 1. Focus on Value to the Customers

First and foremost, the development team must have a relentless focus on value to the customers.

The development team has been hired to be the expert. You as the leader must hold them accountable to be the expert. The leader of the development team must lead the team to show you and the customers that they know more, do more, and care more about achieving the customer results than anyone else.

The team must know the customer domain. They must understand the implications of the development project to the customer. They must be able to clearly articulate what the value of a high-quality result is for the customers of the project.

As a leader, set the clear expectation that where the development team lacks the ability to be the expert, they must pursue every course of action to remedy that problem. If they can’t do it on their own, they must ask you as the project sponsor for help.

Obligation 2. Deliver High-Quality Results

Customers expect a product that works. They want it to work the first time.

This is so obvious that many leaders do not even mention it when they kick off projects nor when they follow up. The focus on quality often comes later when a product or service is being tested. That is too late to ensure you have a high-quality product. Testing quality in is expensive and not effective.

Your internal testing should be a validation that your development process is working. Needing to do extensive rework in your testing is a lightening flash indication that your customer is at risk of bad quality. It is also thundering that your process must be improved.

As a leader, you must emphasize these points at the start. Tell your development teams to focus on quality from the start. That is the key to speed for delivering customer value. Be clear that every bit of unnecessary rework takes away time from creative work.

Ask the team for how they will track quality throughout the project. The team should not just talk about quality; they must have data that proves they have control of the quality of the product. If they do not have data that makes sense to you, they need coaching or training on how to build a quality product the first time.

Obligation 3. Take Ownership of the Speed to Value

You are right to emphasize to the team the criticality of speed to value. You should be clear about the cost of delays. You should be clear about the economic opportunity of speed.

Your job is to free the team to think of all possible actions that can achieve the best speed to value. Ask the team to turn over every rock for opportunities to go faster. If they have a million-dollar investment that could help gain two-weeks on the schedule, they should ask you! You may say “no,” but that would be you choosing to go slower. You may say yes because sometimes two weeks is worth multiple millions of dollars in opportunity.

Your job is to make the focus on speed be part of the project team’s DNA. Throughout the project, the team must focus all actions on achieving the best speed to value. They must focus on getting the right people and the right skills on the job. They must continuously prioritize the most valuable work for the customer. They must get the right tools and the right training.

Too many leaders have only the tool of “pressure” and they use this by continually asking about the schedule. Instead, ask the teams what ideas they have that can remove barriers and then help them leap over the hurdles in the way.

Obligation 4. Make Commitments You Can Keep or Beat

Ask your teams to commit to a schedule that they can keep or beat.

It is difficult to make accurate predictions on complex development projects. Yet I have coached hundreds of projects on how to do precisely that.

The teams need to focus on customer value. They must build quality products. They need to turn over every rock looking for ways to go faster. After they have done all that, they must use their engineering judgment to build a schedule they can commit to with confidence.

They must use historical data. The team must consider risk factors, such as rework and growth factors, such as expected growth in requirements. They must factor in load-balancing across team members. They must manage critical external dependencies.

Your job as a leader is to ask the team questions about all of these such that you know that they made a plan they believe in and that you also believe in.

*** These obligations are not easy. That is why each of these obligations must be kept in the forefront of your discussions with your development teams throughout the project. You must collaborate with them for your mutual success.

The more you and your teams can deliver to these obligations, the more the business and their customers will trust you to create the highest value products.

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