Warning: Agile Teams Can Get Really Good at Delivering the Wrong Things

agile teams discovery incremental delivery outcomes
Team having a discussion next to computer screen

By Julie Springer

May 5, 2022

Agile delivery processes and frameworks like Scrum are optimized for moving the highest priority work through the system and getting solutions into the customer’s hands quickly. As they mature, Agile teams can get very good at delivering quickly and at good quality. They learn to break features down into stories and tasks, forecast what they can complete in an iteration, work together to get it done, test along the way, and validate their solution with the product owner. At the end of the iteration, they reflect on how things are going, identify improvements and start the cycle over again.

The problem is that many teams improve their ability to deliver without enough focus on WHAT they are delivering and WHY it has value. It amazes me that we place so much emphasis on creating an efficient delivery system without knowing that we are putting the right things into it.

Symptoms of Too Much Focus on Delivery

These are statements that I frequently hear from people at the organizations that ask us to help them improve their planning:

  • Executive Leader: “I know the teams are really busy and working hard, but we are not making progress on our strategic goals.”
  • Project Manager: “To be honest, I don’t agree with the approach we are taking on this project, but it’s already been decided so we need to make it happen.”
  • Product Owner: “There is a lot of stuff we don’t know, but I can’t find time to meet with our customers and stakeholders. Let’s just start working on it.”
  • Team Member: “This doesn’t seem right based on what I’ve heard from customers, but we said we would get it done, so I’ll just follow the requirements.”

Each of these individuals has good intentions and wants to build the right things. So, why do they move forward with the wrong solutions? A few common reasons include pressure to get things done, a lack of process and skills around how to discover the solution before moving into Delivery, and an unwillingness to prioritize or plan for the effort that it takes to do discovery work.

Finding the Balance Between Discovery and Delivery

Leaders and teams need to adjust the balance between Discovery and Delivery, so that they stop building the wrong things faster. While delivery activities are about how to get things done, discovery activities are about first understanding the who, what and why.

  • Why are we doing this now? Why is it important?
  • Who is this for? What are the customer’s needs?
  • What is currently happening? What problems need to be solved?
  • What is the desired outcome?

Once this is well understood, the next step is to identify and evaluate options for solving the problem, so that the team is clear on the purpose of the work, why the solution was selected and how they will measure success. Only then, is the team prepared to move into Delivery, with confidence that they are working toward a valuable solution (or at least testing a really good idea!)

Making the Investment in Discovery

At first, it's challenging for teams to shift the balance between Discovery and Delivery because it takes a deliberate investment of time and effort. Discovery work needs to be accounted for and included in the team’s backlog. If project managers, product owners and teams are new to Discovery, the investment is even greater, because they will need time to learn and develop the knowledge and skills. In the short-term, the delivery engine will slow down and less will get done.

Although this can be hard to do, the pay-off makes it well worth the investment. When teams take the time to discover who, what and why before doing the delivery work, the benefits include:

  • Reduced rework, because solutions are more likely to meet the need
  • Increased customer and stakeholder satisfaction, because the most important problems are being solved
  • Increased job satisfaction, motivation and morale, because the work is more meaningful
  • Improved business outcomes, because the solutions are aligned with strategic goals 

How to Get Started

To start shifting the balance between Discovery and Delivery, work with leaders, project managers, product owners and team members to set a clear vision for the change. The investment will impact everyone and making the change will require participation and support across the organization. It’s important to hear everyone’s voice and for the value and purpose of the change to be well-understood.

Then, start with one team or area. Identify a team that is working on a product or project that could really benefit from making the change. This team must be willing to make the change - if not, start somewhere else. Support the change by:

  • Providing basic-level training, plus coaching support for everyone involved.
  • Committing to reinvesting time that would have been spent on delivery activities. Support the team in prioritizing the delivery work, even if it means that forecasted delivery dates need to be adjusted.
  • Defining and planning for the discovery activities. Add them to the team’s backlog.
  • Treating the change as an experiment to see what you can learn. Inspect and adapt the process until you have good results and then start to apply it to other teams. If it is working well, other teams will want to adopt the change.

Download our Guide for practical instructions and tools for how to get started with Discovery, using a collaborative approach that engages teams and leaders. 

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