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Leadership's Increment: Balancing The Strategic And Tactical

Great Leadership Ideas It is not enough for leadership to support a transformation - they have to actively participate.

That is a lesson we at Scrum Inc. teach, and one based on years of partnering on successful transformations large and small. 

Active participation often means leadership should be “scrumming” themselves. This not only demonstrates a commitment to the success of the transformation but also builds empathy while accelerating the leadership team's ability to deliver.

Active participation requires that leadership delivers an increment or increments each Sprint.

This leads to some uncomfortable questions. 

What is it that a leadership team delivers? What is on their backlog and how do they define an increment that can be delivered within a Sprint?

To answer these questions we need to step back and think about the purpose of the leadership team. 

At Scrum Inc., we recently went through this process with our transformation leadership team. We followed our advice and began by examining the Scrum@Scale guide and its definition of the Executive Action Team (EAT). Then we stepped back and began assessing the key outcomes that THIS leadership team delivers. A frequent paradigm I use when thinking about effective leadership teams deals with two factors; customers and timeframe. 

The Two Types Of Customers 

The first type of customer leadership serves is obvious to most; the endpoint user who consumes the organization’s products or services. As a leadership team, we need to develop a system that enables us to develop and deliver the best products and services to our customers that solve job needs for those customers. 

However, there is a second customer. The organization itself.  Leadership teams need to develop a system that enables and empowers Scrum Teams within the organization to deliver those services. Examples of core activities for this customer include people development, process, and policy definition, and financial transparency. 

If a leadership team’s backlog does not develop the right balance between these two customers, based on the organization's needs, the organization is in trouble. Without the right customers and products, there is no business. Without the right internal people and processes, there is no way to deliver those services and solve the market need. 

Timeframes: Strategic And Tactical

Effective leadership teams successfully balance both short-term tactical problems and longer-term strategic objectives, when creating their backlog.  If an organization is always reacting to short-term crises and removing incremental impediments, root causes will never be addressed.

The organization will stop progressing, the products and services will not be evolving with the market.  Longer-term strategic objectives are a must. However, I have seen leadership teams get so focused on their strategic objectives that they are unintentionally allowing the organization and the transformation to hollow out and die.

As they develop the perfect vision and approach, they have missed the smoldering fire and let small sparks turn into large fires. What should have been an easy tactical fix is now turned into a full-on strategic crisis.  Balancing the strategic and tactical along with the needs of your internal and external customers can be tough. But with some thought, it is possible to ensure you’re doing the right mix. 

The Right Balance

Balance Equation Quadrant for LeadershipFinding the right balance requires the ability to see what customers are served by each of leadership’s activities and/or actions and in what timeframe.

This simple balance equation quadrant achieves this with ease. Populating this quadrants are easy and, like many of the best information radiators, it can be done with sticky notes. 

Simply place each current activity and/or action on an individual sticky note and place them in appropriate quadrant. Upcoming needs, activities, and/or actions can be captured on a different color sticky notes and populate the quadrants as well. 

All of this can and should be updated and refactored over time.  Once the quadrant is completed, leadership can now step back and assess the needs of the organization and assess the balance of outcomes across the four quadrants and determine the current ideal state for your organization. 

What The Quadrants Tell You

Populating the quadrants isn’t the end state.

Acting on the information and insights the quadrants provide is what matters most. This takes some thought. Depending on the current market situation a 25% focus for each quadrant may not be ideal.  Maybe the market is in crisis, as when COVID first sent us all into lockdown and leadership needs to deal with a lot more short-term priorities.

Or maybe the organization is experience extreme growth and a stable market situation. In this scenario, the best focus may be on developing the in-house capacity to support those needs.  What is important is that leadership assess the balance and define the equation that balances it for your organization.   

Prioritizing Outcomes

Once you have identified outcomes you need to prioritize them. This allows leadership to then prioritize the Product Backlog Items that need to be created. 

This too leads to some complicated questions like “How do I prioritize backlog items that are not directly related to each other?” 

This is a question my Scrum Inc. team has also faced. 

The framework we use to assess this macro prioritization is based on our organization's hierarchy of needs. Think of your organization as being like a human being described in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, organizations cannot work on higher-order needs until their basic needs are met. So take the outcomes from the balance quadrant and remap them to the following hierarchy. 

  • What we must do: If these outcomes are not achieved the organization will not survive. As humans, we need food, water, and shelter. 
  • What we should do: These are the outcomes that are imperative for the long-term growth of the organization. As humans to develop we need to find security and safety to invest in bettering myself and the environment in which I live. 
  • What we would like to do: These outcomes are of even higher-order and can start to be addressed when our "must do’s" and "should do’s" are completed. As humans, once we feel stable and safe we start to invest in our emotional needs and start to become what makes us human.
  • Things we should not be doing: These are things as a leadership team we should not be doing. This is one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves. Every item we decide we should not be doing helps us drive focus and frees up the capacity to pull in items from higher-order on a spectrum of needs. As a global leader of a 500 person traveling sales team do I need to be approving individual expense reports, quotes, and (or) building routine reports? As a manufacturing plant leader should I be building the daily staffing assignments?

Armed with all of this information leadership is now able to create a backlog and define the increments they’ll be delivering each Sprint.

Identifying The Leadership Increment

As leadership creates their backlog, they’ll be looking at some pretty large and important epics and backlog items. At this point, it is common for leadership to be wondering, “how can we break this down and deliver an increment in each Sprint? I cannot deliver a complex financial forecast within my Sprint or possibly implement a new professional development process.”

Rarely can they focus all of their effort on one item for an entire Sprint. 

The solution to the ‘increment issue’ is for leadership to do what every other Scrum Team in the organization should be doing - backlog decomposition. 

On the strategic level - leadership likely cannot deliver something like an entire forecast in a Sprint. So leadership needs to break the work down into pieces they can finish in a Sprint that still delivers value. These are increments.  

  • What are the individual components that comprise the forecast? 
  • Which elements can leadership work on now vs. which can wait? 
  • Can leadership begin by defining the key assumptions underlying the forecast this Sprint, then work with the rest of the organization to lock in those assumptions for the rest of the forecast period in the next Sprint?

On the tactical level - a leadership team may have near-term employee-related backlog items and/or customer account management work. How do I figure out how to prioritize these different tasks against each other, as they are not related?

Look back to the objectives and outcomes of your leadership team and the organization’s hierarchy of needs. Then, start pulling in the backlog items that relate to the "must do" category, then the "should do" category, then "like to do". 

Next leadership assesses this backlog against the balance of priorities based on the balance quadrant defined earlier. The main question here is, “does this backlog maintain the balance between short-term and strategic work and external and internal.”

If leadership’s Sprint Backlog and the "must do’s" are all related to short-term internal work, you may need to step back and reassess the backlog. Are all of the items really related to the "must do" outcomes? If they are not, leadership should wait to begin work on these backlog items and pull in backlog from the other quadrants. If however, all the items relate to the "must do" category I need to look at some process improvement like:

  • What is the root cause creating all of these items? 
  • What can leadership offload to someone else?
  • Where can leadership create process improvements to remove and limit these tactical "must do" items so that in the future their backlog aligns with the balance quadrant equation?

As a group of leaders, this may seem difficult. A large amount of tactical work is emergent by nature Part of the goal for leadership in working this way is to get ahead and not always be forced to react to short-term tactical problems.

However, if leadership fills up their entire capacity and leaves no room for an interrupt buffer, they are setting their Sprint up for failure.  Once leadership is happy with their Sprint Backlog, they begin their Sprint. They have identified pieces of work that can be delivered, these are the increment.

Leadership likely can’t deliver a final product at the end of each Sprint. Their products are just too big and complex. But they can deliver many small increments that are aligned to the organization’s hierarchy of need and the balance quadrant.  Go back to when you were a kid. You can’t build a structure in Legos without piecing individual pieces together. Those pieces are increments.