Performance Transformation

May 9, 2023

4 min read

Overhauling Operational Models

Agile software development is the most popular product management methodology employed in production nowadays. Engineering teams migrate to Agile in order to speed up development, and it often results in much needed improvements. However, while agile’s short cycles might be adequate for a very specific stage in the product life cycle (e.g. early stages or immediately post-launch), we argue that the operational overhead contributes to suboptimal mental health outcomes and may result in veering off the roadmap.

We noticed early on that Agile was a crutch for poorly defined specifications, incompatible with building high assurance software from scratch. Furthermore, the daily scrums were not only inefficient, but contributed to a sense of dread associated with corporate bureaucracy, while depriving the product developers of ownership and impeding focused work. Agile also proved to be inadequate for remote, or partially remote teams, as the burden of coordination became larger.

There was a need for a new methodology. One that could tackle these issues and revitalize the development process.

Inspired by Basecamp, the company pivoted to the infamous Six Week Cycle, henceforth known as the 6WC.

  • Longer product cycles mirror best practices for writing secure, high quality software

time spent architecting > time spent testing > time spent developing

Instead of operationally intensive daily scrums to chart the path for the day, the 6WC dedicates a week at the start of every cycle to charting the course for the next six weeks.

  • Agile produces “code monkeys”, product cycles produce 10x engineers

In agile the work is set in stone by the product owner for 2 weeks. The 6WC produces alignment between stakeholders, engineers, and designers by facilitating collaboration that culminates in a plan where the executors have greater ownership over their subprojects and thus, more accountability and more accurate ETAs. Here, the job of the product owner is to facilitate discussion to determine scope and requirements, not to play jack of all trades for two week segments.

  • Agile increases coordination burden, product cycles favor asynchronicity

Daily scrums are no longer ideal in the flexible work workplace and run the risk contributing to burnout. Product cycles are most asynchronous with fewer in-person checkpoints, while retaining the traceability of work done in Agile.

  • 6WC is more conducive to focused work

Engineering is focused work. Focused work requires the elimination of distractions in order to hold on to copious amounts of context. The operational overhead introduced by Agile is suboptimal for this type of work, whereas 6WC favors longer stretches of continuous focus.

  • The 6WC increases understanding of the product across the board

As opposed to having a single source of wisdom, the 6WC relies on the proposals submitted by the entire product team. This approach instills responsibility and encourages everyone to fully grasp multiple facets of the product.

With these in mind, the company switched over to the 6WC.

Two issues prevented its potential from being fully reached, which in turn fueled the overhaul. The proposals…

  • exposed a weakness in multidisciplinary planning and,

  • most importantly, showed a disconnect between leadership, vision, and executors

To tackle the first one, proposal submission changed: proposers were now expected to collaborate cross-functionally and submit their proposals jointly. This small change resulted in a decrease in time to specify, and more accurate feasibility assessments.

Furthermore, Big Batch projects that did not fit within the 6WC were broken up into compatible phases. Engineers that ship frequently are happier than ones who don’t.

The implications of the second one were grimmer, but the solution was simple. The disconnect between leadership and executors highlighted the importance of setting a strong vision from which a roadmap is derived and frequently revisited. Everything trickles down from these on to the proposals that comprise the product cycles.

To rectify this, multiple Leadership Alignment sessions took place and a vision slowly crystallized over the course of weeks. A much leaner roadmap was synthesized and both roadmap and vision were communicated to the executors.

With the team refocused and supplied with projects that fit within this 6-week window, morale was uplifted and focused work started taking place. Today, workplace wellness is palpable, there is alignment throughout across the various units of the organization, and the company is executing at a significantly faster pace.

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