Are you confident all your teams are delivering on your corporate strategy? Shortly after deciding to go “All in on Agile” across the entire Vistaprint business unit, we began experimenting with an enterprise-wide Agile planning tool we call the Enterprise Visibility Room. It is forcing us to finally confront our addiction to working on every good idea we think we’ve ever had, all at the same time. It motivates us to say “No, not yet,” and to focus intently on our highest value ideas. Through that intense focus, we align our collective efforts to the core of our strategy, balance our supply and demand and increase the flow of value to our customers.
Our Enterprise Visibility Room, or EVR, has helped to highlight four major challenges that have been impeding our organization, and it has inspired us to take radical steps to fix them. First, our organizational work in progress has been far too high, resulting in slow delivery of value to our customers. Second, our organizational structure was setup in functional silos, creating the need for cumbersome and costly coordination efforts for most strategic work. Third, our priorities were also siloed according to our functions which caused misalignment and delays for our strategic, cross-functional work. Fourth, and finally, many of our team members had difficulty seeing how their work contributed to our corporate strategy, which led to a lower sense of engagement and purpose on those teams.
The Enterprise Visibility Room centers on a single, prioritized, enterprise backlog of strategic outcomes. It visualizes our active strategy work, and which teams are engaged in delivering that value. It also requires clear descriptions of value for each and every strategic outcome. These attributes have helped us limit our organizational WIP, reconsider our organizational structure, clarify the top priorities for our enterprise, and make obvious how teams are helping deliver on our strategy. In addition to the physical elements of the EVR, five ceremonies embody the formal operation of the room: prioritization, planning, scrum of scrums stand-ups, demonstrations, and retrospectives, all occurring throughout a quarterly cycle. More detail about the structure of the EVR is included in the appendix.
Come peak inside the journey we have taken, hear the lessons learned, the pitfalls, and unexpected discoveries. Gather insights into which factors enabled us to take this major step in our enterprise Agile transformation, and imagine what an idea like this could do for your organization.
Way back, before we started our Agile transformation, our projects were taking 3 years on average to go from idea to customer. When we began our Agile journey, we spent years coaching value delivery teams to improve our flow of value, and yet our best ideas were still taking 20+ weeks on average to get to our customers. We were sure we could do better. Slow lead times are, of course, only a symptom that results from other underlying issues, so we asked our leaders to take a closer look with us. When executives examined detailed descriptions of the work being done on behalf of their strategies, they saw that a good portion of that work did not address or sometimes even relate to the strategy it claimed to serve. When one team in the organization needed help from teams in other parts of the organization to complete their work, there were often conflicts around priority. Each group felt responsible to deliver the work in their backlog, and frequently didn’t have time to support groups from other parts of the organization. As a result, prioritization decisions often languished, waiting to make their way up the hierarchy to be resolved by senior leadership or even executive team members.
As coaches working in the organization, we saw these concerning signs and more. Teams had long backlogs of features unrelated to the work being done on other teams. Most teams were also working on multiple different things simultaneously. We eventually began to form hypotheses that a few key enterprise-wide impediments needed to be dealt with in order to improve our flow of value to our customers.
- We believed that the high amount of work in progress across the organization was a primary contributor to the relatively slow flow of value. We hypothesized that visualizing the active work in the organization would raise awareness of the high quantity of work in progress and motivate our executives and organizational leaders to take significant steps to better balance our supply and demand for new ideas.
- We believed that the way our organization was structured, in functional silos, was a second enterprise impediment and major contributor to the slow flow of work. We hypothesized that visualizing the dependencies between teams would heighten our leaders’ understanding of how often our structure was getting in our own way, and would lead us to rethink how we are organized.
- We hypothesized that having a single, clear, prioritized backlog of strategic backlog items would enable alignment across functions and reduce prioritization conflicts.
- We hypothesized that a central visualization that clearly connected the active work of the teams to the strategic priorities of the organization would help everyone understand how their work contributes to delivering on our corporate strategy. This would in turn improve the sense of purpose on many teams and allow them to make better decisions day to day.
After wrestling with these challenges for the past year, largely through experimentation with our Enterprise Visibility Room, we have come to understand two important truths about ourselves. First, we must limit the amount of strategic work we allow to be in progress across the organization. Second, we need an organizational structure that reduces cross-functional dependencies and aligns to our strategic priorities. Both of these changes are necessary in order to improve our flow of value to our customers.
As a reference point for scope, while Vistaprint has over 5000 employees, the number of people covered by the Enterprise Visibility Room activity so far is roughly 700. Our customer service and manufacturing operations represent the bulk of our people, however, the challenges of slow flow of work and difficulty aligning to the strategic direction are not as acute in their world. So we chose to begin, focused where these issues were most critical. The 700 who are reflected in this experience report consist mostly of marketing, technology, analytics and creative teams who often work to expand and enhance our existing business. I am a full-time member of our coaching team, which expanded from 3 to 10 dedicated coaches over the course of this past year’s experiment.
3. Our Journey
For those of you who are still with us and interested in the gory details of how all this came about, follow along to hear what we tried, what did and didn’t work and where we are now.
3.1 The beginning
While working as an Agile coach for our executive team in the spring of 2016, I came to understand many of the challenges our organization was facing, and they brought to mind a tool I had heard about from Agile Transformation Inc. As I understood it, their Enterprise Command Center was a high level visualization of an organization’s strategy, the work required to realize it, and the teams involved in delivering that work. While I could see how such a visualization potentially could help with some of our biggest impediments, I had no idea how to create such a thing, nor how to help our organization take advantage of it. So I invited Sally Elatta, president of Agile Transformation Inc., to share the concept of the Enterprise Command Center with a few of our executives and key leaders to see if it was an idea that would resonate with our primary stakeholders. Boy, did it! What came next was a flurry of education about how to put together and start experimenting with the concept.
3.2 The first increment
A short three weeks later, with the help of Sally and her team, we made our first attempt to visualize the top most important work that was active across the entire organization. We expected that the effort required from members of the organization to catalog and describe their work in a new format would be substantial, and we expected it might not be adding value just yet. As it turned out, we were mistaken on both counts. When we asked the teams what they thought at the end of the first session, they told us that the work to do this was actually much larger than we had imagined, mostly because it was a new concept and was not yet well understood. They also shared that carefully describing their active work by articulating the value it would deliver, who would benefit, and how we would know the value had been achieved, was one of the most valuable elements of the entire exercise. Although we had always felt we had a good understanding of each of these points within our existing ways of working, it turned out that writing them down and sharing them in a highly visible public forum led to all kinds of clarifying conversations between colleagues, managers and executives.
In order to encourage willingness to participate in these requests for new information, we pursued the EVR as a limited time experiment. From the beginning we were open about the fact that we didn’t know if this would be a tool and process that would benefit us enough to outweigh the costs of operating it. Therefore, the initial request was to perform this process only one time, and we made the promise to allow the participants to decide whether there was sufficient value, or potential value, to warrant a second iteration. At the end of the first increment, of the 30 or so participants, only one voted not to continue the experiment for another iteration. The remainder of the participants felt the benefits justified the effort, particularly for the value potential we had not yet tapped in terms of balancing supply and demand.
In our first increment of the visibility room, we asked the teams to simply bubble up and report out the top most important strategic work they were engaged in, and identify which part of the corporate strategy their work aligned with most directly. In the first round we identified roughly 400 major pieces of active work throughout the organization, and nearly 2/3 of those either didn’t align to any of our four strategic priorities, or were not considered to be contributing to the strategy by the executives who defined that strategic direction. Simply visualizing the work had two important effects: first it raised acute awareness of exactly how many different things were going on simultaneously throughout the organization, and second it alerted the executives to the fact that teams throughout the organization did not have a solid enough understanding of their strategy.
3.3 The second increment
In an effort to make improvements to what we had discovered during our first increment, we took a different approach for the second iteration of the quarterly planning cycle. Rather than asking the teams to reveal the outcomes they were actively engaged in, the executives partnered with their leadership teams to identify the most important set of outcomes we needed to deliver in order to move the strategy forward. In other words, this time we would begin with at top down approach driven directly from the strategy. This effort continued the investment in describing our work through Hypothesis, Value, Discovery, or HVD statements. These describe the outcome, the business value it seeks to deliver, the beneficiary of the outcome, and the criteria by which we will know whether the hypothesis has been met and the work can be declared complete. Again, the conversations required to describe our top outcomes in this way added a large amount of value to the participants for the clarifying effect it had in setting expectations for all stakeholders.
In the second increment, the executives asked for a much smaller list of outcomes in order to help the organization focus their efforts. They believed that 40 or so outcomes would be more than enough to overfill the backlog and guarantee we would not run dry during the quarter. As it turned out, the organization itself has a hard time focusing. It’s not just the executives pushing many new ideas that was driving our excessively high work in progress numbers. The organization came back with nearly 80 outcomes when asked for 40.
When the big room planning day arrived, the team representatives were advised to first consider their Run-The-Business burden, then pull in work up to their capacity for the quarter, while leaving some reasonable amount of slack space in their backlogs for the quarter to help account for the unexpected. The resulting behavior of the team representatives was revealing. They pulled work right up to 100% of their capacity with no slack space preserved, and many of them then continued to pull beyond that, even when asked again by our CEO to limit their WIP to create greater focus. The team representatives eventually pulled 48 outcomes during that second increment planning day. As their guides in this process we were not at all comfortable with this approach, but given the advice of our mentors, Sally and her team, we decided to give our leaders room to experience the consequences of their choices themselves. When the quarter ended, they had started 38 of the 48 outcomes, yet they had completed only 13. Such numbers were hard to ignore.
3.4 The third increment
More adjustments were made in the third increment. This time the executives asked for only 19 outcomes to be authored. Again, the team leads had not completely learned their lesson and 35 were submitted. Undaunted, the executives chose to prioritize only the top 16, and set aside the rest “to be pulled after the top priorities were delivered.” In this way the executives were actively driving the organization toward greater focus, leaning on the belief that focusing on fewer outcomes would allow the organization to concentrate its efforts on the highest priority work to move our strategy forward and help get our best ideas to our customers sooner.
During this third increment of the EVR experiment, the teams began to lobby for the opportunity to proactively swarm squads containing different skillsets onto these top 16 outcomes. They were looking to create large outcome teams with a singular focus on the one strategic outcome which that group of squads were pulling. There had been some very recent success with this type of squad swarming around a couple of high profile, high urgency outcomes in the previous quarter and the teams wished to capitalize on this proven pattern of organizing around the work.
This time around, the act of pulling the work into the teams involved full teams, not just team representatives, and the process of pulling in the work went very smoothly. There was adequate time set aside for sharing the context of the business outcomes with the team members during the planning cycle. Then the teams were given time to consider the skills required to accomplish those outcomes within the upcoming quarter. As a final step, the squads volunteered to join these newly forming outcome teams wherever the work aligned with their skills and interest. It was encouraging to listen to them ask one another, “Is that enough to deliver this in one quarter?” “I think we need at least one more squad with that skill set, and here are the reasons why…” “Ok, let’s add another squad.” The conversation continued this way until each squad had chosen the strategic outcome they would contribute to in the upcoming quarter. At the end, it turned out the squads realized they did not have enough capacity to deliver all of the prioritized outcomes. As a result, the scope for the bottom priorities were renegotiated before the start of the quarter. In this way we were coming closer to focusing the efforts of the organization on the top strategic priorities, while still actively balancing supply and demand for that strategic work.
In the midst of executing the third increment of the EVR we discovered a new challenge with these newly created, large outcome teams. It turned out that the previous, successful multi-squad swarming had been done entirely within functional areas, not across them. Coordinating squads on a large scale where all squads had already worked with the same Product Owners, Scrum Masters and Solution Architects, had been relatively easy. Our theory is this was easy because the successful previous groups consisted of teams that were all working with very similar methodologies. However, when the strategic outcome teams were self-forming, they needed squads with varying skill sets from across functional areas. These squads did not all have similar patterns of working, and it was not at all obvious who should be doing what in terms of leadership roles for these new, cross-functional outcome teams. These squads also followed different methodologies in their functional areas, some Scrum, some Kanban. In the end, for some of the most difficult situations, the leadership model and working processes were not ironed out until more than half the quarter had elapsed. As a result, we did not expect the delivery of the top 16 outcomes to be nearly as complete as they might have been, had we quickly established well defined ways of collaborating.
The experience also made us think long and hard about whether we should get better at standing up large, cross-functional outcome teams, or whether we should focus on establishing long-term, stable teams, where the skill sets are sufficiently varied to take on most types of strategic work. One challenge we foresee with long-term, stable teams is that the ratio of skills on a team will not always be correct for the next item of work. The balancing benefit is that members know one another well and have figured out how to work together.
4. What We Learned
4.1 Pitfalls to avoid
We encountered several pitfalls along the way, and we’d like to share to help others avoid them if possible. First, we did not structure our first increment of the EVR in a way that helped to further align the organization’s work to the strategy. Second, the process came across as a top down directive during the 2nd and 3rd increments according to the teams and their leaders. It was not seen as collaborative enough and those leaders became frustrated. Third, even though our CEO repeatedly directed our leaders to, “leave enough slack space to deal with the unexpected,” our leaders did not take her words fully to heart. They continued to commit their teams to more work than could be completed each quarter, and as a result, many of our top priority outcomes were not completed within the quarterly cycle. Finally, capturing the information that drives the EVR process took a lot of collective effort across the organization each quarter. Finding ways to reduce that over time was a crucial necessity.
4.2 What we came to value most
Looking back, several aspects of the Enterprise Visibility Room surprised us with the unexpected value they created for our organization. The first was the HVD, or Hypothesis, Value, Discovery statement format (see the appendix for an example). We articulated all outcomes as hypotheses with clear statements of value, and with specific criteria for how we will know when and if we have achieved the intended outcomes. Our senior leaders who were co-writing these statements with their colleagues and the executives, told us that the discussions which came out of these co-writing sessions were some of the most valuable aspects of entire EVR experiment.
Second, we chose to place the EVR in a high-traffic, fully public space. The unprecedented transparency of strategic information created by this one simple choice allowed individuals and teams to self-serve and uncover unexpected value from the wide open access to this previously out-of-sight information. Just one example is about a leader whose team recently transferred into the Vistaprint organization. He shared that when he stopped to check out the room, he discovered that the top enterprise-level priority for the quarter required work that only his team could perform. He was already aware of the upcoming work, but had no idea of the relative priority of this effort for the organization. He immediately went back to his team to re-prioritize their backlog and ensure that this top priority item would be completed in sync with the other parts of the organization. In the end, this top priority item was brought to life successfully, and on schedule.
Third, having a single, clear, prioritized backlog of strategic enterprise level outcomes allowed teams from separate areas of the business to quickly align when prioritization decisions were needed further out in the organization. We knew from the beginning that there were significant challenges in gaining alignment across teams for strategic work, but we had no idea how effective taking this step would be. Once leaders had a single prioritized list across the enterprise, they quickly negotiated the necessary decisions with one another to get the work moving without the need for escalations.
Finally, visualizing the complex dependencies between the high number of teams required to deliver our strategic outcomes created a visceral understanding of how much our existing organizational structure was getting in our way. We had hypothesized at the beginning that this realization might be possible if we could bring to life this invisible impediment, but the way it came about definitely surprised us. At the end of our first full planning day, one of our executives shared the following. “Oh my g**. When I saw the teams passing around so many copies of each piece of work [one for each team required], I was shocked. Then, even more copies had to be printed for the teams that hadn’t even realized they had a part to play in those outcomes. I know it’s going to be incredibly hard, but we have to find a way to fix this!” He had finally felt the pain of the deep interdependencies that were inherent in our strategic work, given our current organization. I believe it was this moment that led to the conviction within the executive team to redesign how our organization is structured after the third increment of the EVR, and align those structures directly to our strategic priorities.
4.3 Keys to success
Our top two keys to success with the EVR were executive support and cross training. Without executive support, the effort required to articulate and visualize our work centrally would have taken much longer and might not have happened at all. Agile executive coaching played a role in gaining executive buy-in and willingness to experiment with changes to the company’s central coordination efforts. Both external coaching from Sally Elatta, and my internal embedded coaching helped create the space to consider the signals the organization was sending to the executive team about the organization’s highest priority challenges and needs. Adding the Agile perspective to these conversations helped the executive team see how a tool like the EVR could help us better understand and then solve for these challenges.
Much to our surprise, it was far easier and quicker for teams to cross train into new functional areas than anyone had previously imagined. This allowed teams to swarm onto the highest priority strategic outcomes even when the work involved areas outside a team’s functional silo. The positive results and strong enthusiasm from the teams doing the swarming and cross training, boosted our confidence that switching to long-term, stable, cross-functional teams, was not only desirable, but also doable in the very near term.
5. What’s Next
In June we started our fourth increment of the EVR, and as of July 1st, operation of the EVR moved out of the experimental stage where it was spearheaded by our Agile coaching team, and transitioned into our strategy organization as part of our regular strategic planning process. In this round our executives have responded to the feedback about the functional silos being in the way of easily executing the work. We are reshaping our organization to create long-term, stable, cross-functional teams focused on each of our strategic priorities. Each of these teams will have the squads and skill sets required to deliver on their pillar of the strategy. We fully expect there will be new challenges to discover and overcome with this new approach, and we can’t wait to get to work on solving them!
I would like to recognize and thank the people who played key roles in enabling this experience to come about, and to be recorded here. Without them, these efforts would never have been realized, nor would they have been shared for the benefit of you, the reader. First recognition must go to Sally Elatta, Dawn Thiem and Ryan Fullmer of Agile Transformation Inc. They introduced us to the concept of this form of enterprise visualization, taught us about its potential value, showed us how to implement it, and helped us discover a version that would ultimately best serve our unique circumstances. Their knowledge, patience and enthusiasm were invaluable in incubating such a complex endeavor.
Next I would like to thank our executives, leaders and team members involved in the EVR experiment. Our executives understood the potential value and provided the permission and support that was absolutely necessary for this experiment to simply get off the ground. Their continued support throughout the experiment helped create the safe space where we could say “No” to doing important work, so that we could focus on completing our most important work. They also understood the challenges imposed by our existing organizational structure and had the insight and courage to restructure how we organize around the work, not just around their own organizations. Our leaders and teams gave untold hours of their time, mostly on faith, to learn how to express our ideas in more shareable, meaningful ways. They did all the heavy lifting to catalog and describe our collective work. This allowed us to fully understand our existing situation and where we most needed to change. Our leaders also leaned in to take ownership of the EVR process from very early on and began adapting it to suit their needs. Their engagement, honesty, creativity and hard work to form our EVR are what made it the uniquely valuable tool it is today.
I want to share my deepest appreciation for my fellow coaches. Their selfless, unwavering support all along the way made the impossible happen. Long, late hours of drudge work, thoughtful, critical debate and co-creation of how to help our organization navigate through these changes were just the beginning of their numerous contributions. I would also like to give a special thank you to David Grabel, my coaching pair for the EVR experiment. Your experience and wisdom gave me comfort and confidence, and your critical thinking made us sure each of our choices were the best they could be given what we knew at the time!
Lastly, I would like to thank those that encouraged and helped me to write down and share this experience. Mario Moreira, thank you for always pushing me to write more and submit this experience report in the first place. Thank you, Jon Friedman, for your expertise in crafting a well-told story, one that even a “sleepy reader” can take something away from. Thank you to Melissa Rockman, my thinking partner in re-structuring how best to tell this tale and helping me find all the missing parts. Finally, a huge thank you to Johanna Rothman, my Agile Alliance experience report shepherd. Your writing advice for a first-time author, feedback and encouragement helped this all come together!
7.1 A detailed description of the room
There are four basic elements to the room. The first is the Demand wall.
In the sense of Supply and Demand, the Demand wall holds the Strategic Priorities and a single prioritized stack rank of the top enterprise outcomes, each sized to fit within a quarter (90 days). Although the quarterly outcomes stack rank is split into multiple columns due to physical space constraints, the columns represent a single top to bottom prioritization across the full set of outcomes. Card colors are used to visualize the connection between quarterly outcomes and the Strategic Priority to which they contribute.
The second is the Supply wall.
The Supply wall represents teams and tribes with each column, and the outcome cards in those columns are copies of the outcome cards from the Demand wall. There is one copy for each team needed to deliver that outcome. The order of the cards represents the priority order established on the Demand wall and was created for each team as the quarterly outcomes were pulled by the team representatives during the quarterly planning session. The horizontal blue line indicates where the team representative believes the team’s capacity or Supply limit has been reached. Any cards below this line should be considered On Deck, only to be pulled if all other work in the team’s backlog has been completed for the quarter.
Next is the Enterprise Impediments board.
Similar to other impediment management boards throughout Vistaprint’s teams, this is the Enterprise Impediments management board. This is the place to capture and track organizational or enterprise level impediments that require the assistance of our most senior leaders to remove.
And finally, the Enterprise Backlog.
The Enterprise Backlog contains the outcomes which were not pulled by the teams during the planning session once they hit their Supply limit. Participants and users of the room are encouraged to add or remove outcome cards to this backlog throughout the quarter as needs are recognized. This helps alleviate the crush of card writing experienced during previous iterations. Prioritization of the Enterprise Backlog may be adjusted during the quarter, but will be finalized before the next planning session.
7.2 HVD or Hypothesis, Value, Discovery format
Hypothesis statements are a format we found exceedingly helpful when describing the strategic outcomes which are catalogued on each of the Enterprise Visibility Room cards. Describing our ideas in this way encourage us to structure our thinking and be more articulate in defining what is, and especially what is not needed for each outcome to be considered a success. (Note: Our hypothesis statement format is derived from Hypothesis Driven Development, as described by Barry O’Reilly of ThoughtWorks)
Copyright 2017 is held by the author.