One of the premises of Lean/Agile thinking is to always
improve things. Your process, product, and teamwork will
never reach perfection; you just keep iterating
(inspecting and adapting, as Scrum says). “Continuous
improvement” is the fancier term.
This is a Good Thing on several levels. Not having to
design perfection ahead of time, you can relax and just
focus on making valuable progress. By making improvements
in small, regular doses, you can avoid overwhelming
changes. You can also apply temporary fixes and
countermeasures with the confidence you'll replace them
with proper measures soon enough.
Like many other Agile tenets, the continuous improvement
loop is nice in theory, but hard to apply in practice.
Temporary fixes have a way of becoming permanent. The
repetitive strain of small changes may be worse than big,
isolated changes. And I'm sure you've seen features whose
development never proceeded beyond the simplistic,
stunted, or bare-bones first iteration.
Why does this happen? One obvious reason is appetite and
tolerance for change, which varies greatly among people.
Another reason is the mental effort of shifting attention
between the present and the press of business, and the
future and how we can make it better.
A third reason is that we're just too busy. Whether we
use backlogs, to-do lists, or short term memory, they
include lots of items. And since there's always more to
do, opportunities for continuous improvement are easily
squeezed out. The urgent wins over the important.
A necessary but not sufficient condition for the
continuous improvement loop to exist and work its magic
is to have slack. Slack allows you to observe, and to
process what you observe. Like coming up for air when you
swim, slack is not optional. It's that extra time you
allow yourself in order to think; it is not a buffer you
easily tap into.
Retrospectives are a form of structured slack. Going
offsite for training or conferences is another form,
predicated on learning. Pairing with a teammate on a task
lets both of you have unstructured slack. Cutting back on
your hours during summer is yet another example.
Whether structured or unstructured, regular or sporadic,
slack has to be protected. Don't try to increase
productivity (or velocity) by cutting down on slack, such
as by reducing retrospectives to 15 minutes or by
forbidding pairing. You don't have to be the only person
monitoring it, though; everybody on the team will notice
if there's less of it.
How do you build slack into your work?
How do you leverage that slack as a learning opportunity that drives change?
What else do you do?
Freshen up your next retrospective by making these the
focus questions. It will be an interesting conversation,
since many individual contributors believe that senior
management frowns on slack. But if you're going to
practice continuous improvement, that belief will have to
change. I look forward to hearing what you come up with.
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