Executive Visibility in Successful Agile Enterprises

October 27, 2015 Lee Cunnigham

A colleague recently asked me, “What if developers only got paid when features ship?”

“They’d only do the easy ones,” I replied, only half-joking.

But as I thought about it more, I asked myself, “What if nobody in the entire value stream – executives included – got paid until features ship?”

Now, that might sound like a far-fetched idea, until you realize that that is exactly the position your business is in – especially if you work in a product company.   Who pays for things they haven’t received?

So, what if that was the case in your company?

How much more collaborative would your organization be?

How many meetings would you NOT have?

And what would your executives care about?

My bet is that your executives wouldn’t worry about tracking anything that doesn’t help them know whether or not features are getting finished and delivered quickly enough.

This bet isn’t based on just an internal hunch.  Over the last couple of years, I’ve asked every executive I’ve spoken with, as well as individuals who have to regularly report to executives, just what it is that they really care about.

The consistency of the answers I’ve received is remarkable:

“Time to market”

“Speed to cash”

“System lead time”

They might be using slightly different terms, but they’re all saying the same thing.  They’re saying that the most important thing they can know is how long it takes from the time they realize the need for some capability to the time that capability gets into the hands of their customers.

Why is this so, even though the “you get a paycheck only when features ship” policy isn’t in effect?

Well, we could point to the abundance of “lean business” awareness out there today.   Or we could talk about how, in today’s business climate, you’re either disrupting your competitors or they are disrupting you.  And we’d be right.

We could reason that small batch sizes and short lead times actually reduce costs and increase opportunities for revenue, along with providing the continual feedback that helps us make sure that we’re building the right things.  Again, we would have a strong case.

But if we step back and just think about metrics, we can see that the things we could measure, like internal cycle times, WIP defect trends, escaped defects, and low-level burnup and burndown rates, have one thing in common:  they all affect lead the time of your software development and delivery system.

That’s why, in my opinion, if you could only measure one thing, system lead time would be it.  And that’s why I believe I’m not hearing executives of successful agile enterprises asking for low-level metrics – at least not for their primary decision-making information.

Start High, Drill Down Only When Necessary

Executives need visibility into the measures that are relevant to their responsibility for business outcomes.  This visibility also needs to be easily-accessible.

If, as more executives are telling us, the measures that best indicate organizational performance are those related to the speed with which they can deliver, then those measures are the ones that need to be at their fingertips.  If all is well with those, there probably won’t be a need to drill down further.

This doesn’t mean that lower-level measures aren’t valuable.  It’s in those measures that we often find clues to what needs to be tweaked to continually improve lead time.

But starting low requires triangulation and analysis, which is time-consuming and subject to misinterpretation.  Said another way, it’s expensive and confusing, and who wants that?

By focusing reporting at a high, outcome-oriented level, executives can concentrate on what’s immediately important to them.  If those higher-level measures start to trend negatively, then they can explore the underlying data in more detail.

Configuring your executive views with this high-to-low progression in mind will allow you to help your executives make better decisions more quickly.  And better, quicker decisions can make the difference between an organization that thrives and one that doesn’t.

Which kind of organization do you want to belong to?

Learn more about Scorecards and other executive visibility options in VersionOne.

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About the Author

Lee Cunnigham

Lee Cunningham is the senior director, enterprise agile strategy at CollabNet VersionOne. He is focused on advising the executive sponsors and senior leaders of large enterprises, providing insight and practical guidance to meet the challenges of large-scale agile. He works with organizations around the world, and his experience, pragmatic approach, and customer focus keep him in demand as a trusted advisor.

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