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June 21, 2022

Flow Engineering

By Steve Pereira ,Andrew Davis

This post is adapted from the paper “Flow Engineering” by Steve Pereira and Andrew Davis from the Spring 2022 DevOps Enterprise Journal

Sharon is a VP of Engineering at a Fortune 2000 company that’s struggled with digital transformation attempts over the past ten years. Sharon’s company, Bolt Global, is facing increasing market pressure. Competitive pressure is pushing them to make operational efficiency improvements and to open up new lines of business. They’ve launched a dozen new improvement initiatives. That has, in turn, created more work for Sharon’s team, with a massive backlog of changes that her team is tasked with delivering. She’s under pressure to figure out how to deliver twice as fast as she’s able to deliver today.

Figure 1: We all need to go faster, but the question is: How?

The only question is, how? Although it’s a fictional scenario, Sharon is facing a situation similar to lots of organizations around the world. Many of these massive IT initiatives and digital transformation projects end in failure. When you look at the literature about why many of these initiatives struggle to get off the ground or struggle to succeed, many sources point to an underlying lack of clarity. Leadership fails to gain the clarity they need. They fail to share that clarity across the organization. They fail to clearly process information from individual contributors. They fail to sustain clarity as the competitive landscape is changing and technology is evolving.

The Crisis of Clarity

Why do we struggle to find clarity? Consider Sharon’s situation: She’s operating within the limits of her individual perceptual capacity. She can pay attention to company strategic initiatives, her own initiatives that she’s trying to roll out, the work items that her team is working on, and the interpersonal dynamics and personal situations of people on her team. It’s a lot to balance. She finds herself context-
switching through the day and struggling to keep everything straight in her own mind.

Sharon’s staff is building twenty different applications across multiple product teams. They all interact with each other in different ways. They’re built on different technology stacks. The market landscape is changing, so there’s a phenomenal amount of complexity that she and her team are trying to manage. These three things together mean that it’s legitimately hard to find clarity.

The Power of Mapping

Collaborative mapping is an underrated capability in organizations. It can be used to create clarity across complex domains and many individuals. It brings separate perspectives and individuals together to create a common understanding. Mapping can help Sharon’s team bring their best ideas and individual perceptions together to create a common understanding. By allowing people to bring their contributions forward, they develop a sense of ownership over the outcome. You might recognize this as the Ikea effect. When you build something, you feel better about and more attached to the end product. By bringing everyone together, you’re able to create a sense of alignment, almost convergence, of these separate perspectives. What comes out of it is a unified view of what’s happening and what you can do with your unique capabilities in your unique situation.

This is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s not a copy-and-paste solution that we all know doesn’t work. It’s not a heavy framework that imposes a structure or operating model on your company. It involves creating clarity with Sharon’s team in Sharon’s situation. In the process of discovery, mapping, and definition, Sharon’s team will be learning how to improve performance by connecting target outcomes to the work that contributes to current outcomes, and surfacing constraints, obstacles, and insights that would otherwise stay hidden behind the scenes. Everything can be brought to the surface, including the diverse voices and perspectives across the value stream. One of the best aspects of this under the current circumstances is that it’s very remote-friendly. Sharon can include participants across her organization who might reside in different locations or who are only in the office a couple of days a week.

This process of mapping the business landscape, choosing a direction, and navigating is called flow engineering. The ultimate goal of these efforts is to sustainably improve the flow of value to customers. In this example, Sharon’s team uses three specific maps to achieve this, but flow engineering can include a number of different visualizations and practices that help organizations understand what will deliver their target outcome.

The Outcome Map

To start, Sharon’s team decides to align under a common understanding of what their target outcome is and what they know about how they might reach it. Then, they will explore the current constraints on what they’re doing right now. Where are things challenging? Where do things slow down? What is not working? We do this with a collaborative exercise called Outcome Mapping, in which the team lists their target outcome, why this matters, obstacles, investigations, and measures.

The Outcome

A powerful approach to start this process is to begin with the end in mind. Consider Sharon’s target outcome, “Release twice as fast.” What does Sharon need to do to get there? Starting from that point, let’s, as facilitators, guide Sharon’s team through breaking down what “twice as fast” actually looks like and what stands between the team and the outcome.

In pursuit of that goal state, Sharon has to make sure that her team doesn’t lose track of other important initiatives, like keeping the lights on. It’s common to pull so far in the service of velocity that quality suffers. Sharon can make it clear that despite a focus on velocity, quality can’t decline.

Figure 2: An Outcome Map

The Whys

After defining the target and guardrails, the outcome map defines the larger context that it serves. It captures the “whys” of the outcome. Why should Sharon’s team ignore everything else in service of this one focused outcome? The “whys” should consider at least three audiences:

  • customers
  • the organization
  • individual contributors

This provides a chance to connect the outcome to critical targets like OKRs; external factors such as market trends, guiding principles and values; or other goals such as faster feedback. That anchors the outcome in the team and makes it very real, tangible, and powerful as a motivation for moving forward. Most importantly, it provides validation that the outcome really matters and is worth pursuing.

The Obstacles

The next thing to explore is what is going to get in the way of the desired outcomes. What are the Lego pieces Sharon’s team could step on in the middle of the night? What is the perverse incentive that needs to be circumvented? Looking at obstacles—the things that could hinder our progress—brings all the potential fears and challenges into the open so that Sharon’s team can form a strategy to avoid them. This also provides a safe venue for the cautious, wary, or pessimistic perspectives to provide value and be heard before it’s more costly to address concerns.

Investigations

Next, Sharon’s team considers investigations that will improve their understanding and provide insight on the best approach forward. Investigations might include seeking input from customers, leadership, or others in the organization. Her team may need to assess their internal capabilities, inventory available tooling, test out hypotheses, investigate technologies, etc.

Measures

Finally, Sharon’s team defines key measurements that will provide a sense of progress, so they and others know they’re headed in the right direction. These, along with the other items on the map, can change over time as new information and understanding surfaces. Often, measures will change once constraints in the flow and gaps in capability are revealed.

By building this map with Sharon’s team, everybody is on the same page from the very start of their journey. If they’ve failed similar efforts in the past, this is a clear opportunity to begin again from a stronger foundation. This exercise provides clarity by bringing together points of view from different members of the team and from different concerns. One of the first things that this exercise often exposes is that members of the team have different goals and values. Mapping confronts that challenge head on and provides a simple approach to working backward toward a valuable target and taking the best steps toward that outcome.

Continue reading for free in the Spring 2022 DevOps Enterprise Journal.

- About The Authors
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Steve Pereira

Dramatically evolving organizational performance with Flow Engineering

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Andrew Davis

Senior Director of Methodology and Training at Copado, focused on the next generation of DevOps on the Salesforce platform. I'm also the author of the leading book on the Salesforce development lifecycle, Mastering Salesforce DevOps.

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