The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted every team that I work with, in some way. My own staff left the office one Friday afternoon with laptops in mid-March, and I haven’t seen them in person since that day. The temptation in times like these is to put things on hold, to delay, to push things later in order to give the team time to adjust to the new realities.
But the teams I coach to use Rapid Learning Cycles have not moved any of their Events — the events took place on time — and as a result, their programs have been able to make meaningful progress in the face of the uncertainty. In fact, they have experienced the reality that fixed pull events provide structure that helps teams manage uncertainty.
The Learning Cycle and Integration Events in the Rapid Learning Cycles framework are pull events with fixed dates to provide accountability and visibility. They provide a window into a team’s progress, and problems have no place to hide. For most of the teams that I work with, there is some adjustment time before they get used to the notion that we hold an Event whether or not we’re ready. In fact, the times when we are not ready are the times we need to have the Event the most.
No Matter What Happens, We Have the Event
Short of a natural disaster — and sometimes despite them — we have our Learning Cycle and Integration Events on time. For teams making the transition to the Rapid Learning Cycles framework, this represents a major change from the way that most groups handle project updates and gate reviews. In a traditional product development process, a team delays these events until they are sure that they can pass the gate. If an unanticipated problem comes up, or the entire team gets pulled away for three weeks to resolve a production issue, the entire project plan slips.
That’s because in a traditional product development process, status updates and gate reviews are essentially approval meetings. The team is expected to present a united, polished report to management, and management is expected to approve the report or pass the project through to the next phase. If there are problems, they get handled entirely outside this process, and may never even be discussed in the meeting.
In some organizations, it’s not safe to talk about the team’s problems — the expectation is that management doesn’t want to hear them, and won’t offer effective help if they do learn about them. In others, people are rewarded for putting a positive spin on the things they are “selling” to management, in order to win the political games that lead to more resources and better project assignments. In any case, problems go underground only to surface later, when they are much more expensive to deal with.
Events Surface Problems to Solve Them Early
Rapid Learning Cycles Events — from Status Events all the way to Integration Events — are designed to surface problems as early as possible. A person who is stuck on an activity will never go longer than a week without an opportunity to report it and ask for help. Any problems with Knowledge Gaps will surface within one Learning Cycle, and problems with Key Decisions will show up at Integration Events — and probably sooner, when the related Knowledge Gaps investigations uncover them.
Since the Learning Cycle and Integration Events are held as planned, the program team cannot succumb to the temptation to delay a meeting with stakeholders until the team can give them better news. This means that the stakeholders have a much more realistic understanding of the team’s progress, as well as the benefits of uncovering the problems early, before the stakeholders have made decisions that are difficult to undo later.
Accountability and visibility in a Learning Cycle or Integration Event is centered on providing an accurate picture of the program’s current state so that the team and stakeholders have more knowledge to make better decisions. The frequency of the events create a stronger sense of urgency than a milestone that is months away. These effects combine to help the team maintain the timeline, without causing problems to go underground.
Three Ways the RLC Framework Reinforces the Timeline
Here are three ways that the Rapid Learning Cycles framework helps teams deal more openly with problems — while maintaining the program timeline.
Timeboxed Knowledge Gaps
The investigations to close Knowledge Gaps are not open-ended. When a team decides to close a Knowledge Gap, they make an investment to build knowledge that will pay the team back with a decision that will stick. When the team decides to make this investment, they establish a timeframe when they expect the Knowledge Gap to be closed. The time allocation is fixed into a “timebox” that can only go longer if the team agrees — at a Learning Cycle Event — that it can go longer. If the Knowledge Gap doesn’t close on time, the team member reports on the knowledge that has been built, and any issues that he or she encountered. The team may decide that the Knowledge Gap is important enough to keep working on, but they will do so from a position of conscious choice: something else won’t be done to give the team member more time.
The Last Responsible Moment for Key Decisions
The Last Responsible Moment does for Key Decisions what timeboxes do for Knowledge Gaps: they create pull to close them on time. By definition, if a Key Decision does not close on time, the project will experience a delay or an increase in cost (or perhaps both). If the knowledge hasn’t been built that the stakeholders would like to have, they make a conscious choice: make the decision based on available knowledge, or delay the program. In practice, they’ll often choose to make a Key Decision — and keep working to close the Knowledge Gap (now a risk) so that the team can make a quicker course correction if the decision was not right while minimizing impact to the program. They may also choose to invest in two options so that the program team can move forward with reduced risk, if the cost of carrying the second option is lower than the cost of failure.
Learning Cycle and Integration Events that Don’t Move
With timeboxed Knowledge Gaps and Key Decisions timed to the Last Responsible Moment, it is obvious that Learning Cycle and Integration Events cannot move. In fact, it’s clear that the more the team is struggling, the more they need to have these Events so that they can surface the underlying problems as quickly as possible, and adjust the plan to meet the new current reality.
When a Rapid Learning Cycles Program Gets Delayed
What if the entire team does get pulled off to deal with a production issue, and loses an entire learning cycle’s worth of work, or there is an office-wide flu epidemic? We still have the Event, even though it may look like nothing has happened. At the Event, we acknowledge the new current reality, and we don’t assume that the program plan will slip. In fact, this is exactly what is happening with COVID-19: teams are holding their events, even during the weeks when they first learned they’d all be working remotely.
Instead, we have a conversation with our stakeholders, who may have compelling reasons why it would be better to stick with the original plan, even though it allows less time for building knowledge. The team may need to remove some Knowledge Gaps that they planned to investigate, or choose methods to build knowledge that are faster, if less conclusive. They may need to cut scope from the product’s feature set to hit the original date.
Sometimes, the right thing to do is to delay the program. But when we do, it’s a conscious choice to add some additional learning cycles to the plan — not to allow existing learning cycles to stretch out indefinitely. The Status, Learning Cycle and Integration Events continue on time, and in the same cadence as before — there are just a few more of them before the next milestone. The obstacles that led to the program delay don’t have a chance to go underground.
Removing Risks to the Timeline — One Learning Cycle at a Time
The whole point of the Rapid Learning Cycles framework is to break up long, slow learning cycles into short, fast ones that make progress more visible, and bring problems to the surface a lot earlier than a traditional product development program. This is why the teams that are at the most risk of schedule delays are the ones that benefit from the Rapid Learning Cycles framework the most.
For the teams who went into COVID-19 with a Learning Cycles Plan already in place, the structure has helped pull the work that can be done through the system, surfacing problems that arose with remote work and helping teams find solutions to problems with their supply chains or access to test equipment faster. As some places begin to reopen, they are well ahead of their peers who didn’t have that structure. Instead, they maximized the value of the time that they had and the resources available to them to keep their programs moving ahead in the face of the uncertainty.