57 projects – all in flight at once. 3 people working on them. Same meetings happening over and over again. Stakeholders in revolt. A team demoralized and struggling to serve. Confusion. Frustration. Demotivation.
That’s where we found ourselves 12 months ago at Square 1 Bank. The current process for evaluating, prioritizing, and completing technology work was not working.
You see, our clients always come first at Square 1. At every turn, at every decision point, we ask ourselves, “What would the client expect us to do?” That culture of customers-first means a strong and constant cycle of improvements to what we do, and how we do it. And that means changes to the supporting technology, too.
So, the ideas for improvements came flooding in. 57 pretty good-sized ideas, in fact. They were all REALLY good ideas, and many came directly from our clients. Ideas like “Replace the Online Banking system” and “Make it easier for clients to get accounts open” and “Improve workflow so we can spend less time on paperwork and more time helping clients be successful.” Really, really good ideas.
And the team started attacking each idea and working to make progress on each one. After all, they were, each one of them, really good ideas. They gathered their partners across the organization and started asking all the right questions. Looking at the existing systems and looking at the market place, working to unravel complicated dependencies and find better solutions. Upgrading databases and interfaces and reporting tools and attending vendor demos and getting guidance from industry experts and … and … and ….
Remember – this was 3 people. Total. Their managers were right alongside them, guiding them and coaching them, but also reporting what was happening to their cross-bank partners and bank leadership, making sure everyone understood what was happening. What the issues were. What the risks were. How many hours were being spent on each one. Holding meetings as new ideas were generated, so they could add them to the list. Soon, the list wasn’t 57, it was 58, then 64, then….
After a few months, the reports on progress didn’t really show much…progress. Of the original 57 ideas, only one of them was done in the first month. The team was exhausted, but couldn’t celebrate, because there were still 57 ideas on the list – a new one had already been added. When asked about progress, everyone involved had similar answers:
“What are we working on?”
“We’re not getting anything over the finish line!”
“Competing priorities are causing work to slip.”
“We can’t say ‘No’.”
It was clear – this cycle couldn’t continue. Despite all the best intentions, and for all the right reasons, the team simply couldn’t achieve meaningful results because they couldn’t focus on a few things and do them well. They were working on everything – and nothing – all at the same time.
“There must be a better way.”
Well, flash forward 4 months. It’s 8:30AM and the team is standing before their Scrum Board, and each member is talking about three things:
- What I did yesterday
- What I am doing today
- Whether I have any impediments
When the team started the month, they had one list of 10-12 “stories” that they had all said they could get done that month. And, at the end of the month, each of them had a chance to (physically) move all the stories to “Done Done.” They got it over the finish line.
How Did They Do It?
In a word – Agile. Adopting the principles contained in the Agile Manifesto, the team decided that they could get more work done if they could focus on what was most important, to the exclusion of other distractions from that work. If you’re unfamiliar with the Manifesto, here are the four primary values:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.
Agile Manifesto (http://agilemanifesto.org)
Converting to an Agile Mindset
This was actually really hard to do. The team, requestors, managers, all the stakeholders had a hard time for the first few months picking what was most important, and discussing work in more detail. Prioritizing one good idea over another never feels right. But faced with the reality that NONE of the ideas would get done without prioritization, they had to start making the call.
Over a period of 4-6 months, a sense of partnership began to emerge. One requestor group decided to cancel three requests, in favor of one they really wanted. The Agile team agreed, and that one request got completed – in the month it was promised. Rather than trying to do four things at once (and failing), the team was able to do four things in order of importance.
The concept spread. Soon other teams across the Bank looked at their work process and some found that using an Agile method to prioritize and focus gave them better throughput.
Our biggest lesson: just get started. Don’t wait for every single detail to be perfected before you begin the work. Don’t wait for 100% of your requirements to be documented before you build the prototype. Questions that you (and your customers) didn’t even know you had will come to light – only after you’ve gotten started.
The team internalized this concept from Day 1 – they used sticky notes on a wall to jot down their work and move it from stage to stage, as it was completed. The sense of physical, tactile productivity is rewarding enough and didn’t need to be complicated by rigorous systems for tracking work. Just write it down, and get started.
Today – the whole team, the requestors, and management all know what we are working on. It’s clear and present, and the work is getting DONE.
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