Ship features faster – lessons from elite sports

7 lessons from elite sports to ship software features faster
Charlie Ponsonby

Charlie Ponsonby

Co-founder & CEO, Plandek

Ship features faster – lessons from elite sports for engineering teams

A lot is written in business about lessons to be learned from great sporting achievements.  Elite sporting stars, coaches and sports scientists are regular visitors to business strategy days and Board rooms.

Less is written about the lessons that might be learned for Agile delivery teams faced with the relentless challenge of delivering endless roadmap features for often thankless stakeholders.

So here are seven lessons borrowed from elite sports that every hard-working product delivery team can benefit from to help them ship the right features faster.

The core theme of each lesson comes back to the effective use of the intelligent insight available from the new generation of engineering intelligence tools.       

 

Roadmap delivery and the need to ship features faster – common problems

The common problems that these sporting lessons are designed to solve in the context of Agile software delivery are:

  • Inability to deliver features predictably (on time)
  • Difficulty in balancing speed and quality
  • Done doesn’t actually mean ‘done’
  • Team fatigue over time.

So, if your teams have suffered from any of these common challenges, read on…

The seven lessons from elite sports to ship software features faster and accelerate your roadmap delivery

Here, we discuss the seven key lessons from elite sports that we see our best-performing and most innovative customers apply day in and day out.  These are:

  1. Plan to succeed
  2. Stay focused
  3. Speed with precision
  4. Conserve energy – small steps perfectly
  5. Look ahead – find and mitigate hidden risk
  6. Keep the fans cheering
  7. Champion teams!

 

1. Plan to succeed

“It’s not the will to win that matters. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters”.  Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant

This is a universal tenet of elite sport and is clearly directly applicable to Agile software delivery. 

The nature of Agile makes planning tricky to get right. Forecasting when a feature will be delivered is often compromised by the fact that much of the feature may not be scoped/estimated upfront.   

This ambiguity of Agile means that the planning that is done ahead of delivering a product feature must, at the very least, do two things well:

  1. Estimate accurately – poor estimation is the root of many delayed feature releases.
  2. Analyse and manage backlog effectively – poorly scoped and managed backlog is often a source of inefficiency and poor forecasting.

The new generation of engineering intelligence tools like Plandek enables product managers to do both of these things better.

For example, Sprint Velocity and Sprint Volatility analytics (see below) enable analysis of teams’ estimation skills when planning the delivery of a new epic or feature.

Plandek example graphics – Sprint Velocity and Volatility analytics
Plandek example graphics – Sprint Velocity and Volatility analytics

It provides a clear understanding of teams’ past Sprint Completion and Carried Over Work, which is the best quantitative measure of teams’ ability to plan and execute sprints accurately (and therefore a proxy estimate of the probability of them delivering ‘to plan’ in the future).

As per (2), Delivery Managers can analyse the backlog at the outset in order to understand the proportion of new functionality that has been scoped and the proportion that remains un-scoped, which will have a huge bearing on delivering timing estimation.

Then, as teams get underway, they can keep a continuous eye on the key Backlog Health metrics, which are critical to increasing velocity. These include:

  • Story Points Ready for Dev: (the number one Backlog Health metric which should be considered relative to the velocity of teams to ensure that there are always 1-2 sprints of backlog ‘cushion’).
  • Orphaned Stories (ensuring that all stories are linked to a ‘parent’ (e.g. an epic), rather than unassigned or ‘orphaned’, thereby adding to potential planning inaccuracy).

As the old Chinese proverb says…

“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago.  The second-best time is now.”

 

2. Stay focused

Great athletes have a unique ability to avoid distraction and remain focused on a single objective for extended periods of time.

Our research shows that one of the key reasons for problems in delivering new roadmap features is a lack of focus at two levels: 

  1. At the macro level, there is a lack of team resources available to actually build new features – versus resources diverted away to either planned technical debt or unplanned work such as bug fixing.
  2. At the micro-level, there is a tendency for teams to get diverted into working on tickets outside planned sprints and epics.

The example graphic below shows how the new generation of engineering intelligence tools like Plandek enables product managers to improve at both these levels. 

At the macro level, it shows very clearly how much resource is actually available to deliver new features and how this varies over the duration of the delivery period.  It is very common for less than 50% of total resources to be available to build new features, taking into account time lost to addressing technical debt of unplanned work (e.g. bug fixing).

Plandek example graphics – showing the proportion of work done by new features/priorities, tech debt and unplanned work
Plandek example graphics – showing the proportion of work done by new features/priorities, tech debt and unplanned work
Plandek example graphics – showing the proportion of work done by new features/priorities, tech debt and unplanned work
Plandek example graphics – showing the proportion of work done by new features/priorities, tech debt and unplanned work

Similarly, at the micro-level, elite engineering teams will use engineering intelligence platforms to analyse the make-up of the tickets constantly worked on within sprints to reduce work outside the sprint, carried-over work and unplanned tickets added after the sprint starts.  

This ability of high-performing engineering teams to remain focused at both macro and micro levels is shared with great athletes. 

Carl Lewis, one of the greatest US track athletes of all time, sums this up…

“My thoughts before a big race are usually pretty simple. I tell myself: Get out of the blocks, run your race, stay relaxed. If you run your race, you’ll win… channel your energy. Focus.” Carl Lewis (Track and Field multiple Olympic Champion)

3. Speed with precision

A key challenge for delivery teams is how to increase velocity without negatively impacting quality.

This is clearly something that elite sportspeople in all disciplines become very good at doing.

“It’s a round ball and a round bat, and you got to hit it square.” – Pete Rose (Baseball Great)

Elite athletes constantly track their progress in the ability to manage the speed of execution and flawless execution.  So, too, do high-performing delivery teams.

Again, an engineering intelligence platform can really help in this regard, enabling Delivery Managers to keep a very close eye on the relationship between team output and quality.

At the aggregate product level, it’s important to track the overall relationship between throughput (expressed in tickets or story points completed) and quality (expressed, for example, in Escaped Defects).

Plandek example graphic – showing the relationship between throughput and quality at the product level
Plandek example graphic – showing the relationship between throughput and quality at the product level

This balance of speed and precision develops rapidly in engineering teams that relentlessly review the relationship between velocity and quality. 

And as the golf great Gary Player famously said…

The harder I practice, the luckier I get.” Gary Player

As this virtuous circle of speed and quality develops, teams start to see the time it takes to deliver an increment of software reduce.  Again, elite engineering teams will closely track this over time through metrics such as Lead Time to Value and Cycle Time. 

The teams in the example below are relatively high-performing, having reduced their Lead Time to under 20 days (the time taken to ship an increment of software – from entering backlog until delivered to the live environment).  Similarly, the Cycle Time is less than five days (one working week).  This represents the time it takes from dev-start until deployed to live.

Plandek example graphic – Lead Time and Cycle Time
Plandek example graphic – Lead Time and Cycle Time

4. Conserve energy – small steps perfectly

“Excellence is not a singular act but a habit. You are what you do repeatedly.” – Shaquille O’Neal 

Our research shows that high-performing engineering teams that ship features faster and consistently deliver roadmap goals have a great ability to conserve energy over long periods because they execute the small things very well. 

This is most notable in two key areas:

  1. When running scrum Agile, they execute sprints extremely accurately as this is the basic building block of predictable and fast-paced delivery.
  2. They constantly look to remove ‘dead time’ from the delivery process – so that they limit the amount of time tickets remain in an ‘inactive’ status (e.g. ‘awaiting QA’).

Engineering intelligence tools such as Plandek enable elite engineering teams to address (1) by developing a far better understanding of their sprint execution than is possible with tools such as Jira and ADO. 

The example Sprint Velocity graphic provided by Plandek shows how high-performing teams keep a very close eye on sprint accuracy as a key building block to longer-term roadmap delivery.  

The analytics show Sprint Volatility, Sprint Completion, Carried over Work (often a big issue) and Story Point Change (also a common problem.). 

Elite teams look for Sprint Completion of 80-85% as the sweet spot of pace and precision.

Plandek example graphic – Sprint Velocity analytics to track and drive sprint accuracy
Plandek example graphic – Sprint Velocity analytics to track and drive sprint accuracy

Similarly, as per (2), the constant review of metrics like Flow Efficiency enables teams to take a more holistic view of the efficiency of the SDLC over time. 

It enables them to understand how long tickets remain in ‘inactive’ statuses (such as ‘Waiting for QA’) in order to remove ‘dead time’ from the delivery process and hence reduce friction and delay. 

Plandek example graphic – Flow Efficiency analytics to identify and remove friction from the delivery process
Plandek example graphic – Flow Efficiency analytics to identify and remove friction from the delivery process

Unsurprisingly, great artists and elite sportspeople understand the importance of doing the small things very well.

“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together. If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way” Vincent Van Gogh.

Much like elite athletes, the best agile teams always review, learn from what went wrong, and adapt; metrics also play a key role in this process.

As Michael Jordan famously said…

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed”. Michael Jordon

And Lolo Jones, the dual world champion hurdler and bobsledder, noted…

“A failure isn’t a failure if it prepares you for success tomorrow” – Lolo Jones.

5. Look ahead – find & mitigate hidden risk

“The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital”, Joe Paterno, the most victorious coach in NCAA FBS history.

A universal challenge for delivery teams is managing risk during the delivery journey, particularly as a go-live milestone approaches.

Understanding and mitigating risk requires a holistic view of the end-to-end delivery process – from design all the way through to deployment to live software.  This is where the next generation of engineering intelligence tools are invaluable.

Plandek’s intelligent algorithms work at sprint and epic levels.  They examine all tickets sitting at every stage in the SDLC to identify hidden risks.  As such, they work as a virtual Scrum Master with an ability to ‘see’ risk that their real-life counterparts are very likely to miss.

The graphic below shows how elite engineering teams use the Plandek Virtual Scrum Master (known as LiveView) to quantify risk and identify ‘action items’ that need addressing in order to reduce risk and improve timing accuracy.

Plandek example graphic – LiveView for epics Virtual Scrum Master to identify and mitigate hidden epic delivery risk 
Plandek example graphic – LiveView for epics Virtual Scrum Master to identify and mitigate hidden epic delivery risk

6. Keep the fans cheering

“The fans are the ones who make the game. Without them, there would be no game.  They’re the ones we do it for.” Michael Jordan

Like sports stars, high-performing engineering teams excel at generating box-office (i.e., keeping their customers happy and asking for more!)

In Agile software delivery, this means better understanding the relationship between shipping features faster and value delivered. 

It is well known that Deployment Frequency correlates positively with product NPS scores – i.e. the faster you deploy new features to live, the happier your customers (and the more value you generate).

Plandek allows teams to analyse the relationship between DevOps metrics and multiple other data sources (e.g. financial, HR and customer data). 

Hence, elite engineering teams will tend to use Plandek to track the relationship between Deployment Frequency and product NPS score, as shown in the graphic below.

Plandek example graphic – Deployment Frequency versus product NPS score
Plandek example graphic – Deployment Frequency versus product NPS score


7. Champion teams!

“The secret of winning football games is working more as a team, less as individuals. I play not my 11 best, but my best 11.”  Knute Rockne, College Football Hall of Fame Coach

But perhaps the most important sporting lesson of all is the importance of teamwork.  The key challenge in software delivery will always be maintaining a motivated and relaxed team, as Scrum Agile is relentless in requiring teams to run sprint after sprint in the pursuit of roadmap glory!

Our research shows that delivery leaders who keep a close eye on individual team members’ well-being and satisfaction achieve the highest levels of performance.  This can be done formally through ‘pulse’ surveys and informally.

In addition, the balance of expertise within the team is crucial. For example, the Plandek Pull Request Collaboration analytic shown below is helpful in understanding the balance of capabilities within teams and the reliance within teams on ‘star’ engineers.

Plandek example graphic – Code Knowledge (Pull Request Collaboration) analytic to understand and manage the balance of capabilities within teams  
Plandek example graphic – Code Knowledge (Pull Request Collaboration) analytic to understand and manage the balance of capabilities within teams

So there we have it!  

There are big commonalities between high performance in software engineering and elite sports.  

And the key to unlocking greatness in both disciplines is intelligent insight applied effectively over time.  In software engineering, this is provided by the next generation of intelligent analytics tools that give engineering teams a level of intelligent insight that was previously unattainable from underlying DevOps toolsets.

As Steve Nash concludes…

“Data analytics has become the lifeblood of professional sports, and it’s changing the way we view and compete in the games we love.” Steve Nash, Two-time NBA most valuable player

About Plandek

Plandek is an intelligent analytics and performance platform to help software delivery teams deliver valuable software faster and more predictably.

Plandek enables technology teams to track and drive their improvement and share understandable KPIs with stakeholders interested in accelerating value creation/ improving delivery efficiency.

Plandek works by mining data from delivery teams’ toolsets (such as issue tracking, code repos and CI/CD tools) to provide actionable and intelligent insight across the end-to-end software delivery process.

Plandek is recognised as a top global vendor in the DevOps Value Stream Management space by Gartner and Forrester and is used by private and public organisations globally to optimise their technology delivery and accelerate R&D ROI.

For more information, please visit www.plandek.com

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