The Fog of If

I was participating in a discussion about a beta release of software at a client site. The project is large, with more than 20 Scrum Teams working on the same product. A mood of concern permeated the room of Product Owners and stakeholders, because of the growing complexity around the release conditions. The conversation was going something like this:

“If the off shore team can confirm the build, we can ship.”

“Ship tomorrow? You really think that gives them enough time to confirm?”

“If the testing goes well on the two integration parts, the confirmation should be easy.”

“The integration has been known to be risky. Will Joanne be available to help?”

“She will be if she can fix the critical patch issue.”

“Rajeesh said he can do that if the new tool is working.”

“What if they confirm after 8AM? Can we still ship if they are a bit late?”

And so on.

A Fog Of Our Making

It is valuable to strive and solve problems. It is good to find ways to work around a problem. Usually. Sometimes extra measures to reach a goal makes things worse. We stagnate not knowing what path to take. We generate negative energy, decreasing confidence and increasing disengagement. Forward momentum stops as we vacillate, because the Fog of “Ifs” is too thick.

Clear the Air

“If” comes in many forms: risk, an unclear Definition of Done, no or unclear acceptance criteria, constantly changing priorities, multi-tasking and low collaboration. Agile ways of working guide us to practices that clear the “ifs” from the air, if we use them. Agile workflows also create an environment where the IF fog cannot grow: finish work in small batches, iterate and improve, deliver quick and frequently.

However, even when we have the best and most Agile of intentions, we can find ourselves in the the fog. This is when leadership can help the most. Decisions, even without full information but based on available information, are better than going deeper in a valley of unknowns with ever more dependencies. The Cynefin framework ( speaks of probing or acting and then learning from that action so that we can find our way out of the fog. Seek answers, certainly, as long as the momentum allows us to pause–then take action. We often cannot know the right path before we act, so movement can be the best way to clear the air. Move toward the goal, which in an Agile environment may very well be the MVP, and away from the Fog of Ifs.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

The Product Owners of the large project were not applying Agile tools to the situation nor were they seeking to make sense of it. They were sinking deeper and deeper into the Fog of “If” in the hope of suddenly seeing the result that they wanted. But hope is not a strategy. This client group of Product Owners needed to follow their Definition of Done and choose the alternative that allowed immediate action. In that case it meant accepting that the release was not ready.

Other ways to dissipate the fog:

  • Review your product, release and sprint goals to cut through actions that don’t get you there.
  • Have a Definition of Done for each planning horizon and stick to it. This helps everyone get better and getting clearly Done instead of thinking things are done.
  • Recognize that patches, workarounds and heroic efforts should be rare, not normal. If you notice that you are choosing a path of exceptions yet again, stop and re-evaluate.
  • Have the people with authority and knowledge in the discussions. If this is hard, there is some organizational work for leadership to make it easy.
  • Work agreements, policies and processes were created for some reason. They should be reviewed often so that they remain helpful. It is not likely that a time of crisis is a good time to change or violate them.
  • Involve the people close to the problem in the decisions on actions to take. And listen to them.

Move, make a decision to learn, make the hard choice to declare a miss so forward momentum can be re-established. Such is far better for you and your stakeholders than the stress in the Fog of “If.”