Divide and Conquer Creates Need for Management Control

Several recent clients want help with these problems:

  • Estimation isn't accurate. Because the estimation isn't accurate, management can't predict when they can release anything. Managers can't manage the capitalization (a way to move from expensing software to capitalizing it).
  • Teams can't seem to ever deliver a finished feature. The work in progress everywhere is quite large.
  • Production support overwhelms the planned feature work.

These teams suffer from the divide-and-conquer problem.

When managers divide teams by function, the teams have less opportunity to learn and collaborate together.

In addition, the managers need ever-more management control. That's because the common goal sits with a senior manager, not any of the lower level managers.

If you're a project manager/Scrum Master/something else in an organization like this, the matrix itself isn't the problem. The matrix is a symptom of the problem.

Divide-and-conquer creates smaller goals, supposedly in service of the larger goal. It doesn't. Divide-and-conquer creates small goals that might not lead to the larger goal at all.

Too many managers believe that separating the functions or the architectural layers makes sense. Maybe they were taught that makes sense. Maybe they've never seen an alternative.

Separating product development by function or architectural layer creates incomplete pieces instead of features through the architecture.

implement by feature

The problem is this: customers don't buy pieces. They don't buy pieces of an architecture. They don't buy the wireframe. They don't buy development without testing. Those are all pieces.

But a variety of pieces isn't a single feature. Pieces create an illusion of progress.

Until the team can produce finished features, the customer can't buy anything. The slice-through-the-architecture isn't just a nice way to think about how stories should look. It's actually a way to finish work and capitalize it.

When we think in flow efficiency, we optimize for the teams to deliver finished functionality. When managers think in divide-and-conquer terms, they optimize for resource efficiency.

Managers do not optimize for finishing features, for collaborative learning. And, they optimize for expense instead of capitalization—exactly what they don't want.

Managers have to create control points to understand the flow of and progress of the work.

This seems counterintuitive to some managers until I explain how software (or other knowledge work) teams actually work. The team learns together to create the product. (See the Product Organization Transformation series.) The more and faster the little feedback loops (dev and test, dev/test/PO), the faster the team releases features.

The faster a team can release features, the faster the managers can capitalize the work.

It turns out that technical teams aren't the only ones who need to work together to learn. When managers learn together, they reduce the management decision wait times.

Divide-and-conquer creates more management work in the form of control.

My clients' problems are real. Too many of them stem from resource-efficiency thinking instead of flow efficiency thinking.

Back in 1975, Fred Brooks in The Mythical Man-Month, said, “The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned.” (My book is at home. I think that's the quote.)

Divide-and-conquer works when you either don't want collaboration (such as war, or two children yelling at each other) or you do want handoffs, such as in a factory, where work moves from one machine to another.

Divide-and-conquer for knowledge work creates too much WIP (work in progress). Managers need to create control mechanisms to bring the work back together.

Instead, think in flow efficiency. Then, managers can collaborate as a team, they can serve teams and manage the project portfolio. In addition, they can capitalize the software every day or every other day.

3 Replies to “Divide and Conquer Creates Need for Management Control”

  1. “Because the estimation isn’t accurate, management can’t predict when they can release anything.”

    Nonsense. Prediction is for soothsayers—managers plan. And accuracy is about correctness compared to some standard or certainty; estimation is only needed in the absence of certainty. Estimates have a precision that arises from the quality of the available data and the methodology used to analyze it. You adjust an estimate as experience and certainty accumulates. Or, if you’re really bad at management, you don’t.

    If a product can’t be released due to quality issues, or the absence of critical features, or an inability to support the product once released to production, the root cause was not a poor estimate; it was poor execution.

    1. Dave, I keep meeting managers who insist on accurate estimates and then are disappointed that they, the managers, never get them. These people mean well, but the systems/environment they create insists on too much certainty too early and not enough replanning/reorganizing/reacting to reality when things turn out differently.

      I happen to agree with you. The point of project management is to help facilitate all the “Plan B/C/D” whatever it takes to get to a reasonable outcome. However, if managers prevent people from learning together, and if they insist on “holding their feet to the fire,” managers get the outcome they deserve. They created a system where the people don’t work together and they can’t achieve a common goal.

      Poor execution arises from many possibilities. I am sure that either of us could list all kinds of ways to prevent production support issues. However, if your manager rewards you for cutting corners, why would you want reasonable execution?

      My opinion: too many managers don’t realize that they are in charge of quality. They are in charge of the dates. Every decision they make has a positive or negative effect on either/both.

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