Systems Thinking, Project Management, and Agile – Part 4: Welcome to the Labyrinth

[For this series, it will help to have read “System Dynamics and Causal Loop Diagrams 101.”]

The capable product owners I know have at least an intuitive understanding that the challenge of guiding a project through to completion is more than a bit like Theseus on his way to defeat the Minotaur. The great product owners have a much more present awareness of the labyrinth before them. Depending on the project, the team, and the work environment, the product backlog just might be the easy piece. It’s more knowable then the myriad of ways a system can work against project success.

The purpose of this series of articles is to shine light on those wily ways of the system, to make more known what capable product owners intuit, to help you become a great product owner.1

In the previous article, we covered how a project can end up with a growing delay before completion. The obvious fix was to push out the deadline, thus erasing the delay (The Shift Deadline Loop, Figure 1, B.) Management has a strong dislike for this and often avoids changing deadlines even when faced with minimal consequences. It’s more likely there are other factors that make the consequences significantly greater. Perhaps there are budget constraints or a delivery date that is tied to a major event like the launch of a suite of related products or a conference.

So if management is faced with an unmovable deadline, the Delay to Completion must be resolved by some other means.

Figure 1

With more work to do and less time to do it, there is now a Talent Resource Deficit. X number of employees working 40 hours a week will no longer get the work done on time. Management’s next set of options lie with changing the behaviors of the development team. We’ll consider three of these options.

The first option is to put pressure on the development team to focus on work more during the time they are working. Maybe this involves tightening the work hours people are expected to be available. Or restricting remote work so team members are in close proximity for longer periods of the day in the hope of shorting the delays inherent in remote communication and problem solving. Or working to eliminate distractions in the workplace. There are many possibilities here.

Figure 2

This is the Work Faster Loop (Figure 2, C) – complete more work in less time. If the development team is more focused, the thinking goes, Productivity will increase and in turn drive an increase in Progress. More Progress leads to less Work to Do which leads to less Total Known Remaining Work which leads to less Time Required to Complete Work and a decrease in the Delay to Completion. Eventually, the Talent Resource Deficit is reduced and the development team can relax a bit.

This looks great in principle. Will get to the messy reality in a future article, but for now, we just need to understand how management typically thinks things should work.

The second option is to ask the development team work Overtime.

Figure 3

Officially, management asks. Unofficially, it isn’t presented as an option. If the development team is putting in more hours, the thinking goes, then the amount of Effort being applied to the work stream increases. As with an increase in Work Intensity, this works its way through the system to reduce the Delay to Completion and ultimately, the development team will no longer need to put in extra hours. This is the Work More Loop (Figure 3, D).

The third option is to simply hire more people to work on the development team.

Figure 4

By deciding to Hire Talent, management will increase the Workforce and once again increase the Effort aimed at increasing progress. As with the increase in Work Intensity and Overtime, this eventually manifests as a decrease in the Delay to Completion. This is the Add People Loop (Figure 4, E).

There you have it. Schedule slipping? Flip one or more of the following switches…

  1. Extend the deadline
  2. Increase employee work intensity
  3. Call for overtime
  4. Hire people

…and in short order the system will be back in balance and the project on schedule. Problem solved.

Not so fast there, young Theseus. Remember, there’s a Minotaur on the hunt for you somewhere in this labyrinth. In the next article of this series we’ll begin looking a some of the ways this simplistic machine thinking can go sideways…fast.


1The core of the model I use to assess team and organization health is based on the work of James Lyneis and David Ford: System Dynamics Applied to Project Management, System Dynamics Review Volume 23 Number 2/3 Summer/Fall 2007

Image by Daniel Roberts from Pixabay