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Blocking & Tackling Wins in Agility, Too

For many of us, fall is the best of the four seasons. It has great weather, fun holidays and football. Football is the quintessential American sport – full of power, speed and precision. And with the season in full swing, I get to use a bunch of juicy football metaphors in my blogs. Yes!

Blocking & Tackling Wins in Agility, Too

In sports, we especially love the "big play". In boxing, it’s the knockout. In baseball, it's the home run. In football, it's the long touchdown pass. As fans, we love big plays. They make us scream, high-five, jump around, and are a big part of why we sit on the edge of our seats for hours waiting for the next one.

In the corporate world, big plays get a lot of press. The new CEO that’s going to lead us to the promised land, the massive re-org that is going to save us from extinction, the merger/acquisition that sets us up to crush our competition – the list goes on. A little closer to my field, we have big plays in the business agility space, too.  Enterprise-wide transformations, implementations of large frameworks, wholesale changing of roles and reporting structure, etc. Big agility plays designed to reap large benefits. All of these things can be valuable, and I could write blogs on each. But what I'm going to focus on today is not the big play. Instead, it is the same thing that Bill Belichick and Nick Saban focus on - the little things, like blocking and tackling. Blocking and tackling are less costly, less risky, and greater contributors to success.

First, let’s agree on why we would even start down such a path. I'll assume that you're already on board with the need to improve your overall business agility – to be responsive, effective, and customer-centric within your specific industry in order to thrive and succeed. To that end, you likely see value in the following:

  1. Keeping your finger on the pulse of your customer's needs (internal & external)
  2. Setting up your organization to respond to those needs more quickly than your competitors
  3. Continually improving your effectiveness at delivering value to meet those needs

Now let's talk about how we can move from where you are today, to a place where you have increased all three of those things. But here comes the lesson that so many of my clients don't want to hear – you don't need a big play. You don't need Tom Brady to throw a 60-yard hitch-and-go. You don’t need a new CEO, leadership team, re-org, or massive amounts of funding. Instead, you do need to focus on the blocking and tackling. "Just blocking and tackling?" you say. Yes…and there are tremendous upsides to your organization by starting your agility focus there.  

So, what is blocking and tackling in this context? It's a bunch of things like:

  1. Dedicating resources to teams so they can be accountable 
  2. Enabling those teams with the resources and tools they need
  3. Increasing the transparency within and around those teams
  4. Coaching those teams to increased collaboration, predictability & ownership of delivery

Before you get uninspired by the simplicity of this (like many CEOs & CIOs do), let's talk results. Results are of course, why we make any change, right? We invest in expensive consultants, make a bunch of big changes, and then look for the big results. Can you get great results from just blocking and tackling better? You bet! Well, let's see some. “Show me the money!”

Here are some teams across a smattering of Fortune 1000 companies in organizations who I assess as between 1-2 out of 5 on their business agility maturity. Most of these companies have been interested in big plays for the past 5-10 years, and continue to rethink the next big play. Then, after several unsuccessful attempts tell themselves, "Maybe this just can't work here. Because, you know - we're different." No, you're not. Sure, there are details that differentiate all companies, but even at 10,000 feet, you have the same fundamental issues as the rest of the F1000, so let's not lean on that excuse. Instead, let's do the small play. Let's not swing for the fence, but rather let's get great at hitting singles (anyone remember Tony Gwynn & Rod Carew?) It doesn't mean that after becoming a great singles hitter, we can't slowly increase our power.

My first goal with any product delivery team is to become predictable. This is often a significant challenge given that the work they will do is littered with unknowns. However, by focusing on those blocking and tackling skills of transparency, small batch sizes, dedication, decentralized control, etc. we can achieve significant improvements in predictability. We use a simple, common measure of predictability: the ratio of what was completed to what was committed. This metric goes by several names including Delivery/Commit ratio (DC ratio) and Commit to Complete ratio (C2C). Here is actual data on team predictability increases we’ve achieved by taking this approach:

Team 1 Predictability

Team 2 Predictability

What would it look like if your teams had that kind of predictability? How much more market share could you gain, or how high could you move those Customer Satisfaction scores with teams that delivered 80+% of everything they committed to by simple blocking and tackling focus? No Leadership changes, no re-org, just coaching and focus on the key elements of enhancing the responsiveness and effectiveness of the teams. And in both cases, the teams were stuck in the 30-40% range before re-focusing their efforts. A 70-80% DC ratio represented a 100% increase in predictability and was achieved in 3-4 months. And who wouldn’t like to share that story with leadership?

But wait a second. Surely success cannot be measured by a single metric! What if they just cheated? In order to give the illusion of increased predictability, what if they just started committing to less, starting inflating estimates, or otherwise gamed the system? We, too, wanted the answer to ensure we were making substantive change. So, let’s dig deeper.

Did they commit to less?

We analyzed the 6-8 sprints where we coached versus the previous 6-8 sprints and found in both cases the teams actually committed to more. Significantly more. The teams on average committed to 25% and 38% more during the coaching period than they averaged in the previous quarter. More predictability on top of a larger commitment – now that’s moving the needle.

Still skeptical? So were we. So the next metric we validated was average work item size.  

Did the average size of things artificially grow?

We wanted to ensure the teams weren’t just calling a small amount of work medium, calling medium work a large, and so on. What we found is that in both cases, the average work item size mostly remained the same or dropped slightly. In neither case did the average work item size increase.  

“But Tony, these are all outputs. What about outcomes? What did the customers who were receiving the value of these teams think of their deliveries during this period?” We set out with our friend Net Promoter Score and asked three simple questions of the internal business owners:

  1. Is the team delivering more value than before?
  2. Are the team’s deliveries aligned with the intended strategy?
  3. How likely are you to promote this team to the rest of the organization as a standard to follow?

Utilizing a standard 1-10 NPS scoring, the responses were all 7s or above. So not only are our outputs showing progress, our customers and validation of the outcomes have been positively affected.

But Touchdown passes are still soooo cool!

Some of you still want the big play. Some of you still want the 80-yard bomb for a game-winning touchdown in overtime in the Super Bowl. Well, here’s the good news – blocking and tackling help set that up. They aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, almost all large frameworks and approaches assume you block and tackle well. We can have our cake and eat it, too!!!

The world is changing rapidly around us. Change is no longer constant; it’s accelerating. Big companies used to eat small ones through economies of scale. But now nimble and responsive companies eat slow and disconnected companies by keeping their finger on the pulse of their customers and focusing on their organizational agility. These organizations and teams didn’t make massive investments to see these improvements, but they did make small investments and showed impressive returns. What could your organization accomplish by focusing on the blocking and tackling for the next few quarters?

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