How Bad Communication Destroys Kanban Forecasts And What To Do
Communication As The Hard Part Of Kanban Forecasting
Curiously, one of the most important elements of successful Kanban forecasting is communication. Who would have thought that? Forecasting seems like a very straightforward activity. You need to figure out what you need to do when it will be done and just communicate the date. That’s it! Or is it really?
In reality, doing the Kanban forecast is just the beginning (in case you don’t know how to do it you can explore various forecasting techniques). Once you give the forecast, now your entire job is to make sure that the forecast happens as you said and when you said it will happen. And that’s not an easy job at all. At least in most companies.
Of course, you might be working in a system that is super predictable and then you won’t be having many of these problems. If that’s the case, lucky you. On the other hand, if you want to innovate and discover new value, there will be uncertainty and thus various problems with forecasting. And this is a standard part of the process.
We need to embrace uncertainty as one of the biggest drivers of value. Like Donald Reinertsen presents in his book Principles of Product Development Flow and we see what we can do about it. How to make things better and how not to make them worse. Communication is the key here and it can make all the difference.
When And How To Communicate In Kanban Forecasting?
If you want not only to do Kanban forecasting properly but also to succeed in these forecasts, make sure that you are following good communication patterns and that they are built into the system. What do I mean by that?
I mean that first of all, you have set the forecast expectations straight. But you also want to make sure that people notice when things are not going in the right direction. And you want to make sure that everyone is on the same side, solving the problem, not pointing fingers.
There are probably at least five communication patterns that people follow, or don’t follow:
1. Not having a clue what is happening and not communicating
2. Being aware of what will happen but hoping for the best
3. Communicating when the Kanban Forecast is off
4. Communicating in advance when Kanban Forecast will be off
5. Over-communicating possible Forecast changes
Let’s dive into each of those and see what we can learn from them.
1. Not Having A Clue What Is Happening And Not Communicating
This is probably the worst-case scenario in Kanban forecasting communication. And unfortunately, it’s not that uncommon.
There are many people and teams out there that don’t have a clue when something they are working on will be done. And even if they do, they don’t know if they are on track or not. So, if you don’t know what is happening, you can’t communicate that to others, nor can you alert them. And trust me, this won’t be good for anyone.
Without an idea of the situation that you’re in, you and the people around you can’t react properly. Because of that, you won’t be able to change the outcome of what’s happening, and when a problem arises, you will be the first one to be blamed. Also, in a lot of situations, you will truly be one of the culprits since you didn’t communicate on time. And this can get ugly.
I don’t see the need to talk too much about this model, but only to try to paint a certain awareness around it. It is a state without the proper knowledge needed for communication and alerting which you need if you want to succeed. If you are in this situation, your job is to move towards a better model until you land a good one.
There is a sub-model of this one - when people are aware of the situation but they don’t communicate it since they don’t see the need. It’s also a model that won’t help you in your life and career so the same comments go for this one as well.
This will be beneficial not only for you and your career but for everyone else included. With that being said, let’s see what other models bring.
2. Being Aware What Will Happen But Hoping For The Best
Compared to the first model, it is better to be aware of what will happen or what might happen, but it’s not OK to avoid communicating it. Especially if there are issues and a possibility of being late. Stop hoping that the problems will go away or that people won’t notice.
I can tell you that people always notice. Maybe they don’t tell it straight to your face, but they notice. They see you are late, and they also perceive this behavior of hiding possible problems. People know what bad effects this can cause. And it’s quite probable that it won’t end well for you.
One interesting metaphor that describes this behavior is watermelon status reporting. The idea behind it is that things look green (“good”) on the outside, while that is only on the surface. If you open the watermelon, you will see that it’s all red (“bad”) on the inside.
Be wary of this. I’ve seen people understand this kind of behavior very differently. Some see this as a sign of bad company culture in which nobody is allowed to fail in any way, so people are not able to speak up freely if things are going in the wrong direction. Showing any signs of weakness is seen as a bad thing in these organizations. If this is the case, the company culture and management behavior must be addressed in some way.
But I’ve also seen interpretations that people do this because they don’t have enough confidence and are afraid to talk about problems. And I’ve also seen some not-so-mild interpretations in which not saying anything was seen as a sign of people being too egoistic and individualistic. Some even attribute this to certain persons being a bit evil and only caring about how they will climb the company ladder or avoid their duties and work.
I’ve presented some of the perceptions that can occur. There are many more but our focus shouldn’t be on them. If there are some problems, it’s better to just own them and do what you can to solve them. If you can solve them, do that, and if not - communicate and ask for help.
People will appreciate this and it will be better not only for you but for everyone else involved in the forecast you are giving. With that being said, if you are in this number two model, keep on going towards better models.
3. Communicating When The Kanban Forecast Is Off
One typical communication pattern in forecasting is that something happens and you tell people that it occurred. Sounds quite reasonable, doesn’t it?. For example - “We were being told that the third party A will deliver X today, but that didn’t happen”. This is a common case that we encounter daily, but people still don’t like it. Why is that?
Well, the problem with this type of situation is that it has already occurred, so you cannot prevent it anymore. Hopefully, you’ve managed to devise some solution options for this case, but a lot of people don’t do this. This means that they are not prepared for the situation, but they still have to act.
It’s quite unpleasant to be a part of this kind of situation and it makes things look like they are a bit out of control. People react often to this with anxiety which can produce uncertainty, anger, and a lack of trust. Again, if this were to happen to you, it won’t make you look professional nor will you win any popularity contests.
Trust, as well as other traits, are a big factor in each person’s and team’s success as well as a professional career. So if these kinds of things reoccur you will keep losing people’s trust and it won’t get you far. It’s even quite possible that this will slow down your career or your professional growth.
Also, it’s quite unfortunate if you weren’t prepared for this or if other people weren’t prepared for this. I’m saying this because these kinds of situations create an unpleasant feeling that people want to get rid of as soon as possible. The problem is that if they weren’t prepared for it, they want to react quickly to what has happened but they also feel that it would have been much better if they thought it through.
To sum it up - these kinds of events happen to everyone and some of them are OK, but you should be aware of them and try to be prepared. It’s very important that they don’t happen to you often and that you don’t make a habit out of them.
When things like this do happen, try to catch them as soon as possible and come up with options immediately. You can also keep an eye on your biggest risks and have some of the options ready even before delays and problems occur. Just don’t try to overthink it and spend your time devising infinite backup scenarios.
As for the risk – you always want to make sure that you are tackling the biggest risks and that you have a plan for them, but not for all of the risks. Take care of the ones that can get you in trouble.
When bad things do happen, make sure to communicate them to everyone who is involved and this is a great time to show the options that you came up with. People mostly react very positively to them and appreciate that you are taking ownership. As we said, people always feel some fear and panic when changes happen and this will mean a lot to them.
Another thing is also understanding what has happened and improving upon it. This kind of behavior can help you a lot in improving yourself and your communication. It will probably get you to see not only when something is about to happen, but also to understand what are the biggest factors in your system that can obstruct the forecast.
With this being said, you are ready to go to the next step in Kanban forecasting.
4. Communicating In Advance When Kanban Forecast Will Be Off
Probably the best communication pattern is to speak up when you notice that certain things are starting to take a different course. For example - “We thought that the scope for B will grow by around 30% as we understand it better, but it has already grown 20% and we just started to get more understanding of it. So, it’s very likely that it will grow much more than 30%”.
A very similar example might be if you have a hard dependency that can change the date of everything else. And you are also checking to see if progress is being made on this side and nothing is happening. You should already know that everything is going to be late.
This kind of situation can be dealt with much better. You can set a countdown for the number of days that are left to start the work and check it regularly. I want to emphasize that you should be checking if the start date is right, not the end date. It’s going to be too late if you are tracking end dates. You are better off keeping track of start dates.
It’s always much better to know things in advance because you can then prepare for them. And you can also act before they happen. You can even affect them in a way that they don’t happen at all. This is all infinitely better than knowing something when it’s already too late.
This kind of foresight will prove extremely useful to everyone. Find a way to put this into action and it will be a real game changer. Keep in mind that these are only patterns of thinking about how to successfully do Kanban forecasting. You will have to see what implementation would make sense in your context.
One thing that obstructs this communication pattern is that people rarely know things in advance and even when they know, they often don’t want to share it. Here, we return to the model of not communicating and hoping for the best, which is very wrong. If you see a danger, it’s very important that you communicate it and it’s even more important to see it as soon as possible.
Let me give you some more examples of what you could keep your eye on to get to a successful forecast. Notice when changes in team size are about to happen. Or the changes in the size of the tech debt.
You should be paying attention to them, or even better, instead of having people leaving the team, track team satisfaction and try to prevent it. Or make sure that the tech debt doesn’t go over a certain number and have policies in place when something like that does happen.
All in all, there are many things that you can do in this area and these are just some ideas to get you started. But also, the method that you are using to do forecasting is something that can help you with this. For example, probabilistic Kanban Monte Carlo Simulations do all this for you based on the data you have. And ProdGoal does these probabilistic forecasts automatically.
This way, when the Kanban forecast changes, you will know instantly and you can also act upon it instantly seeing what you need to do to mitigate it. That’s quite handy.
Now, let’s take a look at one more model.
5. Overcommunicating Possible Forecast Changes
This time, we didn’t leave the best model for the end. We are ending with another word of warning and a forecasting communication antipattern that can be found.
Just like it’s bad to not have a clue about what is happening with the forecast, it’s also not good to constantly communicate possible problems and changes in a Kanban forecast. This would be a bad way of overcommunicating and also over-alerting. It can cause a lot of problems, mostly for you.
Overalerting in forecasting is a modern version of Aesop’s story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Things change and problems arise, but you don’t need to immediately alert everyone about it and over-communicate.
The same goes with every alerting system. People stop taking it seriously and they stop acting upon it. Even when true problems arise, people get accustomed to not reacting to them anymore. Sounds familiar?
This isn’t so good for others, but it’s much worse for you. If you are doing this, you are probably trying to make people aware of everything that is going on. There might be multiple reasons why this is, but it’s mostly an emotional reason.
Someone might be afraid of failing. Or people pointing fingers at her/him or something alike. Because of this, people are probably overreacting and exaggerating and this should be taken care of. Most people don’t like this kind of behavior and they perceive it as insecure, not experienced enough, and not professional. Or they just see a person who doesn’t know how to solve problems and is not doing a good job and is thus always in some kind of a problem. Neither is good.
What also happens a lot is that people present a situation like it’s bad and then suddenly things change and it’s all back to normal. In this case, that person who communicated is the only one left with your previous overreaction. This won’t leave a good mark on one’s career and I believe everyone wants to succeed.
Because of this, I advise you that you become aware of this behavior if you have it. And also to devise a plan on how to act upon it. Seek professional coaching if needed, and try to bring yourself to handle your emotional side which, in turn, will greatly improve your communication model.
With this being said, I will end with a fair word of warning and say that we need to be on a constant lookout for where we are currently and strive for the right communication and alerting model.
I hope you will employ the best communication models and get rid of all the bad ones. And I wish you successful forecasting! If you are familiar with another model or if you see that I’ve missed something, please do let me know, I would love to hear it.
If you would like to try out some of these techniques, you can always use ProdGoal as a free online Kanban tool.