Islands of value

Waterfall has a bad rap, likely deserved, of over-committing to the minutiae of what it will take to create or modify software over the course of many months and years. For this, and many other reasons, agile development favors change over following a plan. Unfortunately, this often results in a severe degree of under-commitment, the polar opposite of over-commitment. Both styles lead to excessive waste, developing features that provide no value to the business.

Over-commitment tends to create things that at one point were likely valuable to the business but no longer are, months and years later when people actually get around to them. Under-commitment tends to result in a “let’s see what happens” mentality, without sufficient discussion of worth.

So how do we strike the right balance in commitment to avoid waste?

It requires a commitment to value first, and then carving out a reasonable target to go after. Value is the potential worth, both tangible and intangible, of the results of what we set out to accomplish. It’s not concerned with the path necessary to achieve that outcome, in fact, pursuing value requires adapting to what we learn as we go.

Like with over-commitment to the minutiae of features in waterfall, it’s just as easy to over commit to value. As you explore the value of what you’re planning, if the value or the perceived effort seem to grow too large, stop and ask, what intermediary step would be worthwhile in itself. Make sure it’s something everyone feels can be accomplished within a reasonable time frame and at a cost that’s a fraction of the potential value.

I like to refer to this as finding the islands of value. Hawaii is a chain of islands. Imagine you’re on one end of the chain. If for some reason you perceive a large amount of value in traveling to the opposite end, start by traveling the shorter distance to the next island in the chain. Certainly it’s of value to explore too. It may not be as big as the island on the other end, but you’ll be one step closer and perhaps pleasantly surprised that the island next door far surpasses your wildest dreams for the time being. You can always take a trip to the furthest island in the future. And when you set out on that journey, visit each island of value along the way.

I specifically refer to these as islands of value. Don’t partition work such that you cannot reap the value until all partitions are complete. That’s still over-commitment. Partition work such that each island is valuable. This makes each step of the journey worthwhile in itself.

What better way to guide commitment than by independently worthwhile, short duration investments?