Need someone to lead product or development at your software company? I lead product and engineering teams and I'm looking for my next opportunity. Check out my resume and get in touch.

The Improvement Flywheel

Improvement flywheel system diagram

A few weeks ago on Twitter, John Cutler posted what he called "the wicked loop" of product development problems.

A team doesn’t execute well, which leads to pressures to deliver things faster. Those pressures come from both inside and outside the team.

In an attempt to deliver value and relieve this pressure, the team becomes reactionary to requests, trying to do more at once, and starts paying more attention to their output than what outcomes they want. They see small holes in their schedule and try and fill those with extra work.

The result is high work in progress, with everyone doing something slightly different. What used to be seen as teamwork starts becoming an interruption, and everyone spends half the day is doing things that aren’t known to the rest of the team. And because everything is depending on everything else, shipping gets harder and batch sizes increase.

The list of missed promises grows, less gets delivered, and because the team isn’t executing well, pressures increase.

Wicked Loop diagram

This feedback loop drives the team to become worse, not better.

But what John calls a Wicked Loop is also an incredible flywheel for improvement. Set it in motion and things will get better faster than you can imagine. The same things that cause a cascade of poor performance can also cause a cascade of improvements in the other direction.

Pick some quick wins and ship those fast. This starts gaining trust within the team and outside it that the team is capable of building quickly.

Use this trust to go back over the outstanding requests and reset expectations. Start telling customers and internal stakeholders, “not now, ask again later.” This reduces the pressure on the team and slows the tide of reacting to the loudest customer. The team can now align around some larger goals instead of jumping when a wheel squeaks.

Because you’re not reacting, you’re not trying to jam lots of things into the schedule, so your work in progress drops. You make all the Work in Progress visible and discuss with the team what’s causing that and how to do less at once. By doing less at once, you experience less context switching and you start working as a team again instead of a collection of individuals. Working as a whole team reduces handoffs and improves flow.

Your better flow means that your main efforts aren’t delayed any longer, that the team starts gaining a reputation for executing well.

You’ve built an Improvement Flywheel. (Click image for full size)

Improvement flywheel system diagram

You’ll fail at this if you try and change everything at once. You have to do it incrementally, especially where trust from outside the team is concerned. Pick off one thing from each of the four boxes and aim at that. You’ll find the rest starts falling into place.

Recently Written

Software engineering manager interview questions (Aug 6)
Here are some questions I like to use to get a sense of who an engineering manager is and how they work.
A framework for onboarding new employees (May 15)
There’s no single good way to onboard an employee that works for every role. Here's a framework for creating a process that you can adapt to each situation.
TV hosts as a guide for software managers (May 10)
Software managers can learn a lot from journalists or late night TV hosts and how they interview people.
The Improvement Flywheel (Apr 29)
An incredible flywheel for the improvement of a development team. Fix a few things, and everything starts getting better.
Managers and technical ability (Dec 26)
In technical fields, the closer you are to the actual work being done, the closer your skills need to resemble those of the people doing the work.
Dysfunctions of output-oriented software teams (Sep 17)
Whatever you call it, the symptom is that you're measuring your progress by how much you build and deliver instead of measuring success by the amount of customer value you create.
Evaluative and generative product development (Aug 30)
Customers never even talk to the companies that don't fit their needs at all. If the only product ideas you're considering are those that meet the needs of your current customers, then you're only going to find new customers that look exactly like your current customers.
Product Manager Career Ladder (Aug 19)
What are the steps along the product management career path?


What I'm Reading


Adam Kalsey

+1 916 600 2497


Public Key

© 1999-2020 Adam Kalsey.