It comes at no surprise that predictability of Agile delivery is a big deal. I would define it as the team’s ability to predict with reasonable accuracy which backlog items they will be able to complete either by the end of a sprint or within a certain timeframe (in case of Kanban teams). And predictability scales up: multiple predictable teams may make a shared program they’re a part of predictable and multiple predictable programs combine to a predictable portfolio. Organizational leaders look for predictable delivery in order to be able to make business commitments.

 

Nonetheless, I’ve always been quick to point out that predictability may not always be what one wants to optimize for. A key factor affecting the importance of predictability is where a product is in its life cycle. A very young product at the beginning of its life ¬†will not require predictability. For such a product, especially if the organization follows approaches promoted by the Lean Startup, focus will be on defining an MVP and releasing it to the market as soon as possible, after which point the team will attempt to validate learnings as quickly as possible and pivot where necessary. Under these circumstances, iterating on the product quickly will be imperative. Therefore, I concluded, predictability is not important under these circumstances but something only more mature products (or larger, traditional organizations) require, right?

Recently, I realized that this it is the wrong question to ask whether a product requires its team(s) to be for what timeframe a development team needs to be predictable. If I’m iterating on my startup’s MVP, I need to be predictable, but maybe my planning horizon is only a week or two. If I’m maintaining a mature product, I may require high predictability in order to forecast 3 to 12 months out. Another factor necessitating high predictability is a market requiring long-term commitments from the companies serving it. Since the need for predictability is a function of the product needs, it’s quite possible that a well diversified company may have multiple products where the answers are different.

 

One caveat is that for the same product, one usually has to decide and pick one or the other: do I want to be highly predictable or highly responsive and able to turn on a dime? In most cases I can’t have my cake and eat it too.

 

My takeaway from this is: predictable delivery is always required, but it’s important to determine for what time horizon teams need to be able to make commitments and why.