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The aggregation of marginal gains

As you might know, I spend a lot of time travelling in the car, and I have a lifelong interest in aviation. So to pass the time, I listen to a lot of podcasts, some of them aviation related.

One podcast I subscribe to is Fast Jet Performance, created by Tim Davies. Tim is a Squadron Leader in the Royal Air Force who has been flying fast jets for almost 20 years. His podcast is fundamentally about how you can optimise your performance in and out of work, often with aviation related analogies.

Recently Tim touched on the subject of The Aggregation of Marginal Gains. I won’t copy the detail of what Tim covered (visit his site to hear the podcast), but this resonated with me in my role as a coach and mentor for teams and organisations wanting to optimise delivery of value, often using Lean/Agile approaches.

One key aspect that I help clients with is the vital importance of feedback loops.

Agile delivery is all about the early and frequent delivery of small slices of value and one of the benefits of this way of working is the ability to continually test assumptions by getting feedback on what you’ve delivered to customers so far. That mitigates the risk of you working very hard to deliver the wrong thing.

Releasing early and often also tests the entire delivery process, from concept to cash. Far better to learn where you have problems in testing, integration and operational support quickly with those small first slices, than getting unpleasant surprises near the end of a traditional project, when it may be too late to sort things out without compromising the budget and timescales.

The way that individuals and teams are working together is regularly inspected at retrospectives. At the end of each retrospective, the team identifies actions that will help them to be more effective. At the next retrospective, the team should be honest and review if the actions were carried out, and what impact there was.

These are all elements of feedback in Agile delivery.

Something I often see with clients new to this way of working is an unrealistic expectation of rapid dramatic improvements. It doesn’t work that way.

Sure, in the very early days, the adoption of collaboration, colocation, information radiators and other basic aspects of Agile delivery will often provide really significant improvements in ways of working, but it is the employment of the principles of Inspect and Adapt by means of feedback loops that embed marginal continuous improvement across the board into teams and organisations.

Marginal Continuous Improvement Across the Board – that’s the key phrase to bear in mind.

Agile organisations understand the importance of metrics, so I’ll use some to explore a hypothetical scenario.

Let’s consider a team working in a cadence of two week sprints, with a retrospective at the end of each sprint. After each retrospective, the team implements simple actions that make them just 2% more effective in the following sprint.

After three months, they’ll be 12% more effective. This is often where those unrealistic expectations that Agile delivery is a ‘Silver Bullet’ start to surface.

But if the values, principles and practices of Agile delivery continue to be applied, and those 2% improvements continue, things start to look very interesting.

After six months, the team is nearly 30% more effective, and after a year, they are over 60% more effective.

What would your organisation look like if it was 60% more effective one year from now?

In summary, short feedback loops and small, positive improvements are at the heart of optimising delivery of value. Just don’t expect too much too soon, and KEEP GOING.