Imagine the situation. You’re in a race. A running race. But you have to wear a blindfold. Oh, and you don’t get to see the course, so you have to put the blindfold on before you get to the start line. OK, this is fairly hypothetical, but bear with me.
Thankfully you have a coach, and the coach is going to give you some advice on how to approach the race. He can’t run the race with you, but he can talk to you whilst you are stood at the start line. Let’s call him Coach Waterfall.
So, you get to the start of the race; Coach Waterfall has entered you into the 100m. He tells you it’s a straight line, and you don’t even have to stay in your lane. This is great, when the starting gun fires, he points you in the direction you need to go and you set off at full speed, confident of victory.
Over time, you enter a few more of these races. More often than not you race to victory, however there are a few times when you accidentally head off in the wrong direction, or fall over halfway. That’s not really a surprise; it’s not easy to run with a blindfold. Coach Waterfall will probably blame you though, I mean, you were the one that messed up right?!
Compare this approach with how somebody might run a project. The manager tells you what is required, and then expects you to go out and deliver it. You then set off, get your head down, and work as hard as you can until you’ve finished what they told you. If you know exactly what is required then you may be able to successfully complete the project. But sometimes the outcome is not quite what your manager wants, or you may encounter unknown issues halfway through, causing the project to be delayed. Either way, your manager won’t be happy.
But anyway, back to running with a blindfold. Over the years you’ve won a few races, well done you. But now it’s the 21st century, and there aren’t as many straightforward 100m races around. Nevertheless, following your previous successes, Coach Waterfall has entered you into a new type of race.
You turn up at the start line wearing your usual blindfold, with Coach Waterfall accompanying you. Coach Waterfall is feeling pretty nervous however; the race is through a forest. He’s been told where the finish line is, but can’t actually see it either. Helpfully, there is a path through the trees that you could follow. It’s a shame you’re blindfolded really.
The starting gun goes, but you stay at the start line as Coach Waterfall is planning your route. He doesn’t want you to bash into trees (he’s nice like that), so he is giving you instructions on which route to take. “Go 10m forwards, 3m left, 8m forwards, turn 45 degrees to your right…”. This is getting difficult!
Meanwhile, another runner has set off straight away. He’s basically got a head start, but Coach Waterfall isn’t paying much attention – how could anyone have set off already without thinking it through?! But the other runner is under the guidance of a different coach – Coach Agile.
What has Coach Agile done? He’s given his athlete a white stick, pointed him in the right direction, and then trusted him to get the job done. Not much planning is required, but a target has been set and the right tools have been provided. With the help of his trusty white stick, the second athlete should be able to follow the path himself, navigate the thick forest and find the finish line.
We can further analyse what Coach Agile’s athlete is doing here. Firstly, he is experimenting from the beginning. He has set off early with a hypothesis of where the finish line is, and will use his white stick to test that he is going in the right direction, and to ensure that he avoids serious injury. Every time his stick hits something he is getting feedback on whether he is going in the right direction, or whether he is wandering off the path. The finish line is out of sight, it’s impossible to plan the perfect route in advance. Only by getting out there, taking one step at a time and getting feedback from the environment will he be able to safely get to the finish line.
Now it wouldn’t be as fast as if he ran the whole way. But it might be as fast as spending a load of time planning and then running the whole way, and it will also be a more sustainable pace. But most importantly, he is much more likely to get to the end unscathed. Coach Waterfall’s athlete is almost certainly going to hit several trees along the way, and when he gets to the finish line he will be bruised, exhausted and most likely in last place.
The big difference between the two races was the change in environment, in the same way that the environment in which we work has also changed a lot over time. These days, an increasing amount of projects are “complex”. In these complex environments, we often don’t know exactly what the customer wants, and we also often don’t know how to actually make what we think the customer wants. In fact, the customer probably doesn’t even know what they want, and whilst we are working all this out someone else will probably come along with a different product that disrupts the market and changes everything once again. In essence, we don’t know where the finish line is, so it’s pointless to plan too much from the beginning. However, despite this change in environment, many people are not actually changing their approach.
So if you find yourself managing a project, I challenge you to think a bit like Coach Agile now and again. Do you know exactly where the finish line is, and are you 100% sure nothing will change along the way? If not, you’re running blind, and there are obstacles everywhere. So don’t spend months planning, all you know about that plan is that it’s going to be wrong. Give your team the tools they need to go out there, let them try things out, let them get lots of feedback, and trust them to find the best route to the finish line. This will massively increase their chances of getting there safely, sustainably and ahead of the competition. As a bonus, the fact that they are allowed to find the way themselves will mean they have a lot more fun getting there too.