“Your capacity to say no determines your capacity to say yes to greater things” – E. Stanley Jones
This is something in business we all struggle with in my assessment. How to sequence “just the right amount of work” to deliver value and still all the desired ability of an organization to remain responsive to shifting value needs. My organization has struggled with it as I feel confident many of you have as well.
There are a lot of techniques, both agile and not, to determine capacity and we’ll look at a few and I will express my own opinions here and what effects poor capacity planning can have on teams and organizations.
Somebody call 911!
A lot of us live in a world of “firefighting” as an organization. Not literally, but what I mean is that we become reactionary as an organization as opposed to responsive. Organizations often confuse responsiveness as the ability to handle each fire as it occurs when it reality this is chaos at its core. Often, these organizations are so busy fighting the blaze that they never take the time once the situation has passed to ask why the fire actually started in the first place or they confuse every flare up on the same level as the entire city in flames. This is not responsive, it’s reactionary and although you may be defined as the “hero of the day” in the moment, it eventually raises much deeper problems that can become exposed and have to be addressed.
Being a reactionary environment is inefficient. It means that there is a significant amount of waste happening waiting for the disastrous event or worse yet it is a sign that work is improperly sequenced to allow a balance of responsiveness and performance. Signs of this are often team member turnover, sick time increases, increased deep policy to attempt to be preventive (the “ban all matches” approach) or just a general negative outlook to solving a problem. Be vigilant in observation for these types of issues as one you define yourself as this type of an organization, it is often very painful to change.
Capacity, Performance and the myth of being busy
One of the things that I have always believed is “do less better”. Ensure that you are meeting the highest value items for an organization but in the face of emergent needs you have to deliberately create slack within your work capacity for numerous reasons. Things like actually being responsive to the emergent pet project that comes up, capacity to nurture your teams and team members to allow them to grow and give back to the organization in doing so and generally to improve performance throughput
Basically capacity boils down to “how much something will hold” from a true math reference bt in our terms it means how much time and work can we consider and remain effective in our performance. Finding area and volume of a given shape to determine capacity is a relatively simple formula but when it comes to people and time, it often gets tougher (although I know many PMP folks who would explain to me formulas of resource management, resource being a word I strongly detest when referring to “people”).
A general rule of thumb is that you will never receive the maximum capacity of a given person or team. Accept this. If a person works an 10 hour day, the best you can hope for us 70%-80% which is roughly 7-8 hours at the high ends. The reason for this is that people are social creatures and have needs like going to the restroom, checking emails, diverting their attention after prolonged focus, casual conversation, meetings, etc.
If there are CIOs/CFOs/COOs/CEOs reading this in awe and shock, welcome to the reality of people. And it is even possible that 10% of your overall workforce is performing suboptimal based on lack of skills, poor work ethic, sickness, burnout or whatever reason. So how do you handle this and still maintain a level of performance without remaining in a constant hiring frenzy of cycling burnout workers?
First, accept your reasonable capacity levels and plan strategically. If you do, you will find that you optimize the flow of delivery within that capacity and you often see higher percentages executed (which can be a different topic to watch for … “dark work” that has no visibility and creates strain but as things are delivered on time no one questions).
If you think more bodies are the answer. You’re wrong. Read the Mythical Man Month. As you increase complexity to any systems you fragment pathways making performance degrade. Think of a small intimate dinner gathering and how conversation can flow well between 2 couples (as they can keep up with topics or break into smaller sub groups and still reflect to the group). Now introduce 2 more, and 2 more, and 2 more. Make it a large dinner party and afterward come home to discuss the topics of conversation. The pathways are too complex. You cannot keep everyone in the loop on all of the conversation occurring.
The same thing occurs with software development. As you introduce more and more staff you increase the complexity in the forms or handoffs, communication pipelines, individual or small group decisions that get made, etc which make it slower as rediscussion, rework and deeper changes are often a result. This is often why I prefer product feature teams as opposed to component teams whenever possible.
Secondly, if you want to be responsive; be deliberate in building in slack to your approach. Let’s take 3 examples; road networks, servers and teams.
You are driving to work. There are 30%-50% of other cars on the road. You make your commute in a reasonable amount of time. But we are not utilizing all of the capacity of the road! So let’s crank it up to 100% and make that same commute. What is the expected result? Traffic jams, delays due to accidents, road rage. We actually decreased our performance by trying to fill all of our capacity.
This is a little tougher as in the day of invisible scalability of cloud networks it may seem a poor example, however, if a server capacity is maximized to 100%, performance degrades; it is a given. It results in unneeded swapping just to meet all requests. It may seem negligible but if you have ever been frustrated waiting for a web page to load, you may have been experiencing exceeded capacity.
Filling a team capacity to the brim can result in whiplash when trying to meet those emergent needs With that allowed focus, you have teams that maximum their throughput through selection, self-organization and a regular cadence. If they have other responsibilities (support, meetings, etc) not building in that capacity that is aware of these things will result in feelings of being high performing but in fact often degrade performance and hide a lot of work being done on an employee’s own time (which can result in a whole host of issues).
But we have to keep people busy
Do we? Did we hire the individual with a specialized set of skills to ensure they remained “busy” or did we hire them to ensure that we had the necessary skills to realize the end result of value?
If a manager pops into a team room and a team is relaxed, having a conversation about Dr. Who or some world event is that ok? Sure it is. If they are personally making their commitments and failing to deliver value, then you might sense a problem which could be everything from they are sandbagging to they are being disrupted externally for other work to the guidance they are receiving is creating deep and counter productive conversations at the time of delivery from a lack of understanding. It could be lots of things.
The point is not to keep people busy. In trying to do this based on observations of social interaction as a sign of low productivity, you toss the idea of capacity out the window. For me, I want a highly motivated team that wants to come to work and deliver because they know they have a direct voice in setting and communicating reasonable expectations for feature delivery. Does this not mean that occasionally the team may not be forced to ramp up commitments to meet a deadline? Absolutely not. But if you trust the people doing the work to be reasonable and responsible in communication, transparency and of the delivery of that work; often times I find teams will rally to address the hard need.
Otherwise they are back in firefighting mode.
Seeking to ensure teams and team members are “all busy” is a false goal. It equates people with server throughput. People should be cultivated and grown if you want to create longevity of any sort in your company with employees. They will become your greatest champions and advocates if you embrace this. They will tell others of the great company they work for and they will work hard to deliver of their commitments.
I write this post today not out of any personal or professional frustration but from an observation that many organizations focus on “busy” as opposed to intentionally creating space to be responsive to emergent needs. Just like a home’s unused space get filled, professional people fill the unused space (through skill acquisition, environment improvement, idea sharing, etc). But just like a home; should you inherit your grandmother’s giant steamer trunk if you have filled all of your capacity of space it gets placed in an odd location or you “make room in the attic”.
Be honest and kind to yourself as an organization, your people and reflect a true understanding of capacity by considering more than just “delivering more” or “being busy”. Understand what other impacts that people have that impinge on capacity and to become truly responsive, be intentional in creating slack within your overall capacity.
As I always say and I will say once again … “Do less better”.