Giving Direction and the "Three Gaps"
Stephen Bungay in the book "Art of Action" describes how the Prussian military successfully provided strategic intent, freeing troops to respond creatively to uncertainty and unpredictability.
The following "three gaps" describe challenges between Plans, Actions and expected Outcomes. The red text below is how we incorrectly respond to a gap. The green text is how Bungay suggests we should respond.
Waterfall sucked. While the book "Art of Action" is not an Agile book, the Three Gaps is a great model in describing what didn't work with waterfall, and why an Agile mindset works.
The Knowledge Gap
With waterfall, the Knowledge Gap was approached by doing all the analysis up front, then handing it over to development teams. This is prone to failure because there is no perfect plan. Instead, if we approach the Knowledge Gap is by planning every increment teams are able to focus on Sprint Goals having a clear direction (What+Why).
The Alignment Gap
When things go wrong in a project, it's easy to assume that what's needed is more information. As valuable as having more information is, it does not solve the "Alignment Gap". Instead, by allowing individuals to align their actions with the intent, teams can make more intelligent decisions on "how" to execute with on a clear direction. As an example, our Product Owner now provides "strategic intent" in our stories and epics to describe "What" needs to be accomplished and "Why".
Cascading Intent and the Alignment Gap
Cascading intent allows high level intention to be broad and far reaching, and become more and more granular as the work is distributed across many teams. Here's an example of how it may look, from the CIO down to the development team:
- (CIO) sunset a legacy product to reduce operating costs
- (Product Owner) ensure system can support 10,000 concurrent users to reduce technology costs
- (Development team) build user registration microservice to support 10k concurrent users
The top-level intent cascades down and becomes more and granular, while providing a view into the original intent. This allows teams execute as autonomously within constraints of the top-level intent. And since the intent is expressed as a "What+Why" - individuals can creatively explore the "How".
The Effects Gap
Retrospectives are a great tool to inspect and adapt your teams processes. The challenge however, is that retro's are sometimes used to add more and more process and controls. By having your retrospectives focus on seeing the desired outcome, it should free your teams to experiment, learn and dynamically respond within the sprint from these learnings. Start's, Stop's and Continue's are great ... but if you've got 20 items in total, you're likely doing it wrong.
Seeing the Three Gaps in Action
What better way to learn than by watching some solid Sci-Fi. Preferably TNG, but DS9 will work in a pinch. I found the following Deep Space 9 clip to be a great example of how the "3 gaps" are a common occurrence when providing direction.
Here are some examples of how the video illustrates the value of providing strategic intent:
- (at 0:50) “Bring us about old man" Sisko provides strategic intent (Knowledge Gap)
- (at 0:56) An officer properly aligned their actions with the intent (Alignment Gap)
In general however, Captain Sisko provides a great deal of instruction given to the crew instead of providing clear direction. Some examples of the undesired consequences include:
- (at 1:07) “We’re coming around too fast”… starting to see the Effects Gap
- (at 1:31) Sisko seeing undesired results (Effects Gap)
- (at 1:41) They almost hit the space station (Effects Gap)
A Great Introduction to the Art of Action
Simon Fawkes does a great job going over key aspects of the "Art of Action" in the following youtube video. I highly recommend you watch the video (and of course buy the book).