Boiling More Than One Ocean (At the Same Time)

Since I joined my first non-corporate software development team a few years back I have seen plenty of examples of product development organizations trying to do too much in parallel. I’m not talking about the usual peak of activity here or there, but about a constant stretch to higher utilization levels or to a bigger number of projects crawling through the development life-cycle.

I am bringing one particular example as an illustration. It was maybe an exaggerated case which, fortunately enough, I have only witnessed but never been a part of. The organization in question was a software development department within the IT division of a mid-sized corporation. By then they usually bought most of their software “in-a-box” or through externally contracted development projects so the department was not very big. Most of their developers were allocated to multiple projects; the most demanded ones to as many as 10 projects. Teams didn’t last long enough to gel and individual allocations were “calculated” through some pretty sophisticated resource management techniques, considering several variables like title, occupation, availability (in chunks of 5%) and even cost.

I asked within an informal conversation and just out of curiosity, how many projects the department was running at that time.
– I don’t know the exact number. I could find it out but it can take some time.
– How many do you close in any given quarter? – I asked back too quickly.
– I don’t remember the average figure exactly. – The director replied.
– Oh, let’s take last one as an example then. – Again, too fast to be prudent.
– Well, ahem… none actually. No project was completed last quarter.

Suddenly I realized how inconvenient those questions were for them. I realized the middle-managers were staring at the floor and the programmers looked uneasy. Then a programmer broke the tense silence: “There are probably more ongoing projects than contributors, be it programmers or testers.” I refused to keep asking. “I see” was my only answer but they understood the implied meaning: “sorry for having asked” .

A few more contacts with the programmers and their managers and I could realize how that single decision, attempting to run every piece of work ever requested from the department at once, was impacting the life of everyone there. High levels of stress, delays everywhere, constant change in plans, design, architecture, inter-component specifications… It was a real hell to work in.

This kind of issue is not that infrequent and its impact on the lives of the product development people is really high. It is my intent herein to describe some of the effects and possible causes of trying to bite more than we can chew, in the hope this can help me not to repeat the same mistakes.

Why is that a problem?

Trying to do too much in parallel increases lead time, which is in our case, the time it takes a project to move from a request or idea to a delivered product.

According to Little’s Law (from queueing theory) the long-term average number of items in a stable system L is equal to the long-term average effective arrival rate, a, multiplied by the (Palm-)average time an item spends in the system, W; or expressed algebraically:

L = aW.

In our case, the system is the development organization, and the items in the system are the projects we run. If there are more projects within the system (L increases) and provided the arrival rate (expressed by a) hasn’t change, the average time to complete a project (W) increases linearly. This is true for the whole system and its subsystems. Don’t get fooled, increasing the amount of work you run in parallel always increases lead time. There’s no way to avoid this simple law.

This is only one of the problems, others are associated with the cost of queues:

The longer a project stays in development,

  • the more risks it accumulates,
  • the more changes will happen in its environment,
  • the higher the Cost of Delay, and
  • the most frequent the scheduling adjustments need to happen.

The more projects are run in parallel by an organization,

  • the smaller the focus of individuals in each project,
  • the higher the wastes associated to task-swapping,
  • the higher the stress level of team members, and
  • the biggest the cost and difficulty associated to resource management.

What are some possible causes?

If this is a problem, why is it so prevalent? Why so many organizations out there show similar patterns? It should be rooted in some difficult to change behaviours producing some other benefits to individuals or organizations or they would not abound.

I listed down some possible causes below, knowing this list cannot be complete and accepting not all organizations are driven by the same forces and needs.

lack of prioritization

  • frequently caused by not having clear evaluation rules to measure the quality of a project proposal or idea
  • projects compete for resources within the system, without the organization holding a clear discussion on their relative merits and priorities
  • the organization is not able to say no to a new request as there are no objective measures of the cost of accepting it in the queue
  • stakeholder expectations not managed when all of them want to set the top priority

projects are difficult to kill

  • also related to not having clear evaluation rules for the value of a project, a proposal or an idea
  • no threshold levels the ideas should exceed in order to become an actionable project
  • death-march or rotten projects clogging the system
  • ideas are pushed down from high-above and killing them would be perceived as a revolt
  • ideas not pursued or discarded are perceived as failures (i.e. fail to deliver)
  • failure is not an option, no learning from it is allowed

the already-in-progress fallacy

  • “It won’t be long; we are already working on it.”
  • “The earlier my favorite project is started the earliest it will be finished.”

Is there an alternative?

Believe it or not what described above is not the only way a product development organization can manage its portfolio. I’ll try to provide some hints of what constitutes in my experience a good approach to controlling the size of a portfolio in order to maximize the throughput while reducing the risk. It is not my intention to present them as portions of the universal unique and immutable truth. They are approaches frequently found useful for most organizations most of the time with a sound theoretical basis.

  • limit work to capacity: do not accept more projects per time period than the organization is able to complete in that period
  • establish some sound quick estimating techniques to evaluate the relative merits of project proposals
  • projects are accepted into the backlog or rejected, no mid-point, no saved for later projects
  • projects in the backlog are estimated and ordered in strict priority order, which can change overtime
  • teams are stable units of individuals who are experts in working together
  • pull, not push: when a team completes a project it pulls the next one from the top of the backlog
  • teams and the organization as a whole are encouraged to swarm around problems to solve them quickly
  • no project is allowed to clog the pipes: once a project has been in the system for longer than an agreed threshold its priority is increased or it is killed


More information on this kind of approach can be found on the following excellent books:

Both changed the way I see and do my work. I haven’t reviewed the books again for writing this post and I don’t think my own take on this matter is exactly what they describe in the books, but I’m sure there is a lot coming from them in what written above, except the errors which are all mine.