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Agile Athletes: Part 2

The Agile mindset within sports and project teams

26 July 2017

Christopher Lewis
Albert Christopher Solutions

As noted in my previous article, there are many similarities between sports teams and Agile teams. These concern not only overall mindset but specific checkpoints all throughout the season, or project.

Trade deadline/Project milestones

Within a season for a sports team, there are many milestones when major decisions must be made. Changes are happening constantly, day by day — and minute to minute within game situations — but there are major checkpoints when a team can make trades for other players. This is known as the trade deadline, and once this milestone passes no trades can be made for the rest of the season. These deadlines are a significant milestone because the sports team must assess the chemistry of the team as well as key metrics, such as the basic win/loss record, to determine whether the team is on target to reach its goal: a championship. If changes need to be made, the team must be Agile and definitive when executing modifications to the original plan in order to pivot within the season.

Trade deadlines are similar to the way a product or project team should evaluate scope (features and functionality), budget, and desired release date during a sprint review/demo or established milestone. Instituting a cadence of checkpoints or milestones is significant because it allows the organization to make modifications to the product after a review/demo, based on changes in the marketplace, team working capacity, or miscommunication of initial requirements.

These checkpoints are highly significant, but the planning of and buy-in to them are even more important. As Supreme Commander and thirty-fourth President of the United States Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The knowledge of these established checkpoints is more important than the checkpoint itself, because knowing there is a milestone in place in which things may change allows an organization to operate without rigidity and to cultivate an environment of trust and safety, since things are likely to slightly change anyway!

Sports teams and organizations that establish a plan but are comfortable making changes at key milestones when the data supports it are exhibiting excellent leadership and effective management. The desired result is to attain a specified goal, not to execute a plan.

Unexpected injuries/Testing and defect management

For many sports teams, when injuries occur, the team’s trajectory can be altered. Who can predict the starting QB getting injured in week 12, or the starting point guard experiencing a season-ending knee surgery after 56 regular season games? These injuries within sports correlate to defects within project delivery. In many projects, testing and defects are areas where a project can be seriously derailed, like a sports team’s goals when injuries occur.

Both are unexpected but known as possibilities, and they can be properly planned for with a good contingency strategy. In traditional Waterfall projects, testing is often done after development is completed, instead of in real time within development. In Agile, where testing is done within a development iteration, there can be issues stemming from separate development environments that do not mimic a production or live environment. This leads to testing that does not accurately reflect what will be released to the end user.

The key begins with acquiring the proper resources and instituting milestone checks. Projects need to establish teams that can withstand losing a team member, whether that be to a short-term personal issue or a long-term absence or exit. A team can also structure for validation testing within development sprints to eliminate phases and receive regular defect feedback prior to the end of the project.

Similarly, sports teams must have a great training and medical staff to consistently monitor and check each player’s health. These regular examinations support the proper treatment of an injury or allow the team to look for other players if the injury is too debilitating. In addition to medical checks, teams must have properly trained back-ups or reserve players. They may not be the “star players,” but they are on the team and still providing value. The best teams have great reserve/role players who know their limitations and effectively execute within their areas of strength.

Playoffs/Project release

The regular season has ended and now only a select few sports teams are able to continue playing into the post-season, better known as the playoffs. The team has navigated the treacherous regular season and thus accomplished one of its necessary goals. Making it to the playoffs as a team means that they could execute enough to have the opportunity, not a direct path, to play for a championship. For projects, the “playoffs” are making it to launch or project release.

It is key to note that a project release is not the end, just as the playoffs are not the end for a sports teams — merely the beginning of a different journey. Many projects make it to a release and plan a celebratory release party or gathering. It is significant to recognize the demanding work that the project members endured, but it must be clear that the final goal has not been accomplished. The playoffs are not the championship. After a release, the team must see if the project has true value for the end user.

The playoffs, like a project release, are a time to assess what needs to occur to reach the championship, or a successful customer or profitable experience. Planning does not stop, but rather setting key goals and metrics to monitor should be instituted, if they are not already established. Just as teams tweak things as the playoffs progress and new opponents and circumstances arise, key performance indicators must be established to execute contingency plans and quick-fix procedures may be needed to respond to real-time customer feedback.

Championship/Post-launch activities

Alas, the championship is here. This is the when a sports team knows that it is one of two teams that are vying to be the best of the season; becoming the champion is proof that a team’s strategy was successful. In sports, a regular season’s duration is approximately six months. To be able to navigate through a competitive sports environment over an extended amount of time involves constant analysis of qualitative and quantitative data. Consistently analyzing field goal percentage, time of possession, turnover differentiation, etc., lays the foundation to becoming a champion. But in the end, the difference between winning and losing a championship is execution.

Once a project launches, the key winning component, as with a sports team winning a championship, is execution. Often, as aforementioned, projects release a product or new customer experience and consider the project a success. This is a false truth. Projects must commence the “after release strategy” to monitor the key performance indicators and execute on enhancements to react to real-time feedback. This is how an organization, and its project, becomes a champion.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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