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Mastering Communication – The No. 1 Problem In Kanban Forecasting

Mastering Communication In Kanban Forecasting

After going through numerous successful and unsuccessful Kanban forecasts, I’ve come to realize that two key elements will make or break a good forecast. Those are 1) the forecasting model that we use and 2) how we communicate our forecast.

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The only reason why I have put the forecasting model before communication is that this order seems more logical when you do Kanban forecasting. But from a perspective of succeeding or failing, people are using great forecasting models that still fail because of bad communication and there are people not using great forecasting models that succeed because of great communication.

Of course, the best scenario is to use an awesome forecasting model and to have great communication as well and the overarching goal is to get you there. But, the focus of this article is to present the problems in communication and how to overcome them. Various Kanban forecasting models will be mentioned, but if you want to know them in more detail, check out this deep dive.

Owning The Kanban Forecast

The very foundation of successful communication is owning the Kanban forecast. What do I mean by that? Well, if you or your team have communicated a forecast, you now need to own it.

You need to make sure that things happen as forecasted. If you see the forecast is at risk or it’s off, you need to own that as well. This either means doing the right things on your own or communicating towards success. The least you can do is damage control, but you still need to own it, act and communicate.

It’s super important to understand that only the people making the forecast own the forecast. This means that only you can make the forecast and if someone else does that for you, they can do that but only you can accept it as your own. And this also means owning all forecasting mistakes and learning from them.

All in all, owning things is the foundation of success. And if you own your forecast and act and communicate from that, soon your forecasting troubles will go away and everything else I wrote below will come to you in time (although reading it will still speed things up).

With that being said, if there was one thing that I would want you to learn from this article, it’s this. If you get this right, I will consider my efforts more than successful. But let’s see what exactly we can do to make our communication great.

Managing Expectations

In succeeding with forecasting, one of the things that you continuously need to have on your mind is how you will manage expectations. As we know, everything changes and so do the Kanban forecasts. We need to be aware of this, and we need to know where the risks and possible changes lie.

People giving the forecast must communicate properly, continuously, and as soon as possible. What do I mean by that? I mean that people need to be able to show and tell how they’ve created the Kanban forecast, what are the risks, what are the points that they will need help with, and so on.

With this, we should be able to communicate in advance what are the possible scenarios that could happen, how that can affect the forecast and what we can do about it. The main pattern here is that you want to be telling people things in advance so they are ready before something happens or even make things better before the forecast goes off track.

This is a very simple and yet very powerful communication pattern. Always having expectations of others in your mind and managing them in advance helps everyone succeed.

There are also forecasting communication antipatterns like not having a clue what is happening and not communicating, being aware of what will happen but hoping for the best, communicating when the Kanban forecast is off, and overcommunicating possible forecast changes. They are all tackled in detail, together with the good practice of communicating in advance when the Kanban forecast will be off, inside the same article which you can read.

Asking The Right Questions

One of the crucial parts of making a good forecast is having good inputs. And for these, you need to know how to ask the right questions. There are so many things that should be taken into account.

Before you forecast, you ask questions to understand if you need to give a really precise forecast, or can it be a rough one? If it’s the rough one, is it a rough one or will that rough forecast be taken as a precise and accurate one? Communicating right is crucial here. And also managing expectations about what can happen if someone takes a rough forecast as an accurate one.

Based on this, there are many more things that you need to ask and get answers to. Like, what is the scope of the work that you need to do? Is that the true scope or is it probable that it will expand? If it will expand, how much are we expecting it to get bigger?

And also - how much do we understand the scope that we need to do? What are the implementation risks? Is it even feasible? Do we have a proof of concept that it will work? Or it’s maybe just something simple and we don’t need to ask all these questions and bother people?

A great practice is to ask “what if…?” questions since those tend to bring out various scenarios that you might not have thought of and this can help you out with understanding the risk. You also might want to ask the pre-mortem question (one of the best practices there is) - “Imagine that we have completely and utterly failed. What happened?”. This kind of question brings out all sorts of great things that you need to think of in advance.

Whatever the case is, you have to go through all these questions because you are owning the forecast. So, think twice about all this and go further with the questions. Will your whole team be focused on this or will you work with only half of the capacity? Is there a vacation period coming soon? Are there new members of the team that need onboarding and that will slow you down a bit before becoming more productive? Will adding new people even make you faster at all?

As for the inputs, the questions that have the most risk in them are connected to the date that you will give for the forecast. What does this mean? Well, imagine if you said that you will finish something in May, but you only said that because you thought that you will start the work in March.

Imagine now what happens to your forecast if you start work in April… Not a pretty sight, is it? The duration of the forecast would stay the same, and in this aspect, you got it right, but it doesn’t matter because now you will be finished in June. Your forecast will be considered off and you will be perceived as late.

This is why you have to consider if you have more work to finish before you start what you have forecasted. And also you need to ask the question if you will be able to start work on the date that you think you will. There are all kinds of forecasting disasters that can happen.

Make sure that you are asking stakeholders these questions as well. It will help them understand the situation better and you can get aligned through this. Keep asking these questions during the forecast.

Last, but not least - make sure that you are asking the right questions after the forecast as well so that you can get better and better at this. These types of questions won’t help only you but the whole company, so keep reflecting and improving.

Giving Options And Making Trade-Offs

As said previously, we need to own the forecast, manage expectations and ask the right questions. But when problems and hard questions arise, which they will, we mustn’t stop there, but we also need to give people options and learn how to make trade-offs.

To truly master forecasting communication, we mustn’t expect that others will always have the answers to our questions and solve possible problems, no matter how early we have detected them. We need to own everything that comes with forecasting and also have some possible solutions and backup options on our minds.

We mustn’t let ourselves get into the position where we will just say that we won’t be able to achieve the forecast and that’s it. People mostly don’t like these yes or no situations where something will happen or won’t happen.

It’s far better to offer at least some options and possible trade-offs and decide together or let people choose. The worst case is when nothing can be done since this is almost always seen as bad practice and people presenting the situation like this don’t come across as professional or capable.

Don’t do that to yourself, but always try to show possible levers and offer options and trade-offs. You will look much more professional and people will admire that you always have at least some sort of a solution. Let’s see what are some of the things that you can make use of.

Showing the right levers - You can show people what are the most important things that need to be changed to make the forecast happen as planned. Of course, you have to know what are the things that would change the outcome if affected, but this is a part of your job. So, dig in and see what could be changed.

Take into consideration all things that come to your mind. There are always some things that can be changed and others that seem completely unchangeable. Offer these as options as well and you might get surprised.

People can start thinking in different ways and can start questioning the current system. There are other people as well who care about the forecast like you and they can be your partners in moving things around even when you least expect it.

Prioritize differently - One of the most impactful ways to get the forecast right is to re-prioritize. This can mean that the thing you are working on is maybe not of the highest priority and you can make it more important so it gets more resources and it’s done earlier.

That also means that you can de-prioritize other things from your team or other teams and move those resources to make the forecast happen. Just changing the order of things can already do wonders, if it’s sensible to pull it off.

Slicing - When talking about prioritization, we also have to talk about slicing. These two go very tightly together because you can slice the work that you need to deliver into smaller chunks and then you can re-prioritize these chunks so that you deliver the most important things on time.

This can be also done not only inside one team, or one part of work, but also across multiple teams or initiatives. It’s a practice that scales well and this is just one example where trade-offs can take place. You can show people what we need to give to get other things on time.

Delaying and deleting - Slicing also goes great with delaying and deleting. Very close relatives of prioritization. Delaying is essentially de-prioritization, but with the thought of doing that work later, while deleting is just complete de-prioritization, where the work is deemed unimportant and thus can be removed.

More work you remove, the faster you will go. Like the Agile manifesto says in one of its twelve principles - “Simplicity--the art of maximizing the amount of work not done--is essential.” This is why I’m mentioning slicing here because you can use any of these practices multiple times on each part of the work. Have in mind that time pressure does wonders for prioritization, since many things that you thought were super important suddenly become unimportant when faced with a deadline.

Rethinking - One of the practices that are very powerful but not that often used is rethinking. That means that you would come up with a different approach on how to solve a certain problem or do some work.

Why this is not used often is that we have already thought through how to do the thing we are doing and it’s quite difficult to come up with a better approach on our own. Again, time pressure helps with this very much, like in the famous Apollo 13 case, so be on the lookout for what you can do differently when things stop looking so great.

All in all, don’t let the forecast fail without a proper fight. Use these practices and strategies to come up with multiple options and make the right trade-offs to succeed. Try some of these out, I’m sure you’ll enjoy them and have fun using some of them.

Saying “No” When Needed

In mastering communication, there isn’t a more important practice than saying “no“. If you want to have successful forecasts, this one word is probably your best friend. And this is not good only for your sake, but for everybody’s sake, if they don’t want to fail. But it’s not easy saying “no”.

We as humans have a tendency to please others, especially in a business context, where we want to look as good as possible and don’t want to show any lack of capabilities. This is tightly connected to saying “no”. Most of us feel and believe that if we say “no” and set boundaries that are not in line with the expectations of others, it seems like we are incapable and failing.

On the other hand, if we don’t say “no” when it is needed, we will feel pressured and this won’t be good for anyone. First of all, in our context, we are not owning the forecast if we don’t say “no” when it’s needed. In not doing so, we have set our forecast to fail and we are the only ones to truly blame. So, there are no excuses - we have to say it when it is the time to do so.

The second thing is that if we don’t say “no”, we are not giving everyone else the needed feedback. People need to know boundaries if we all want to succeed. And if we are unwilling to do so, we are not just making it worse for others, but even more for ourselves.

One other big risk of not saying “no” is what can come out of that pressure that we feel. We can damage ourselves and our health because of the emotional stress we go through. But we can also move this pressure on others, which will blow up in our face.

Also, we can try to hold it in for some time and then suddenly have an emotional outbreak which also won’t be good for anyone. It may also be the case that you just cut yourself from these emotions subconsciously because you don’t know how to handle them and seem chill while everything is falling apart around you.

This one is not good as well and it won’t do you good, especially in the long run. But if you take a look at all those situations, the pattern is more or less the same - you need to share truthful information with everyone, because that’s the right and professional thing to do and it’s much easier and more beneficial in the long run.

Now that we have outlined many risks of not saying no, let’s see what kind of “no’s” exist out there. First, there is the clear “NO” when something is just not possible. There is also the soft “no” when something is just not a good idea but there is a possibility of success. And there is “not now” which is an even softer version of the “no”. In the end, there is the “no, but…” where the option at hand is not possible, but you are offering a different solution.

When saying “no”, you need to choose which one is the best “no” for your situation. Make sure that you are not being softer or harder than needed. Differentiating these can be crucial for success. But there is one more case you should have in your mind - when not to say “no”.

With all the importance of saying “no” in your mind, we now need to come back to the starting point and explore when you shouldn’t say “no”. If you don’t have real arguments or if your arguments are not based on truth, don’t go for a “no”.

However you try to present it, people will feel that something is missing and, no matter if they are telling you or not, they will know what is going on. Even if they don’t challenge you and you think you’ve got away, that’s not the case. People just know.

So, with all this in mind, there is one more thing to pay attention to. When saying “no”, you need to learn how to say it. This is quite a difficult subject to talk about because it’s filled with nuances. The success here is combining not only what you say, but also how you say it and how you present it.

For now, think about these aspects and try out different ways. People are not the same so the styles are not the same as well. Keep in mind that your presentation can make or break your forecast, so let’s dive deeper into that.

Presenting The Situation In A Clear Way

In the art of communication, visualization is still the key to success. When people just talk, words go in and out of our minds. When we visualize what we are talking about, the picture is being built and through that, the shared understanding emerges.

In forecasting, it’s very important that you visualize the key inputs and levers. What do I mean by that? Well, you shouldn’t just say or present what the Kanban forecast is. You should also show what inputs are based on and what levers can be pulled to affect this forecast.

All this needs to be visualized so people will notice the key points and also be continuously checked and communicated so that people are constantly reminded of the situation at hand. It should be very easy to understand so that people can engage and easy to access so that everyone can chip in.

Without proper visualization and presentation, it will be super difficult to get everyone aligned. And without getting everyone on the same page it will be a living hell to get things right when some part of the forecast goes off.

So, always think about better ways to visualize all the important elements of the forecast. And, of course, don’t show things that are not important. What I can say is that your visualization will heavily depend on the forecasting techniques that you use. So why don’t we see how different forecasting techniques will shape your communication and visualization?

How Different Kanban Forecasting Techniques Shape Communication

The success of the forecasting model is heavily related to the way we communicate, but it’s also the other way around. The better the forecasting model we use, the easier it is to communicate and the communication is much richer and more engaging.

Forecasting models shape communication in all its instances so it’s super important that we choose the right model. With this in mind, we can say that success is based on choosing the right forecasting and communication model.

We have talked about levers in forecasting, but one of the biggest levers that you have and that many people are not aware of is the Kanban forecasting technique that you are using. The forecasting model that you are using will greatly model not only your communication but the whole outcome.

First of all, different Kanban forecasting techniques use different inputs and this already makes a huge difference in communication, collaboration, and success. Depending on what you show to people and what type of inputs are there, you will communicate around it or not. What you show to people and in what form, shapes the conversation.

For example, if you are talking about the scope and presenting one singular and very precise number for it, it looks like the scope has been thoroughly explored and it looks like it’s very much fixed. So, if I say that the scope is 51.82 items or story points or whatever, it looks very specific and it gives a sense of accuracy.

The thing is that we know from experience that the scope at the beginning is never the same as the scope at the end. So, the more precise the number, the greater the illusion. The same goes for the delivery rate.

For example if I say that our delivery rate is 7.2 items, that also sounds super precise. It seems like I know what I’m talking about and that I’ve done my research and I’m very sure of it.

But we know the story here as well… 7.2 might be the average, but the distribution shows us that we deliver from 3 to 9 items weekly. And that we have delivered in the past 15 weeks from 0 to 6 items weekly since our team changed, but we might be using some very old and irrelevant data.

Or we might have some dependencies that we can’t solve so part of our delivery has been put to a halt and we didn’t consider that. Also, there is a vacation period coming up and we didn’t count that into the Kanban forecast.

These probably sound strange, but these kinds of inputs are the most common inputs for today’s Kanban forecasting methods. And as you can see, not only are they problematic, but they also don’t give any room for conversation, nor do they invite collaboration.

What do I mean by this? Well, there are many dangers and opportunities in various Kanban forecasting techniques. For example, if we say that our scope is not that well understood and our current range of work looks like it’s between 40 and 60 items with our current understanding. This sounds a bit scary at first, but I’ll give you that. Why is that?

Well, we are doing something that people are not used to. We are openly telling everyone that we don’t understand the work completely and also, we are giving a range instead of a singular number. How is this good? And how are we supposed to forecast using this as input?

First of all, this is much more real. It’s not an illusion, it’s reality. And there are various ways for all of you to act upon it. Maybe it’s completely fine for everyone to have this kind of ranged scope. It may be the case that someone just wanted a very rough estimate and a quick forecast and this is enough. So, there was no more time wasted doing this than needed.

Or maybe you can agree together that you want to work with a higher level of certainty, so because of this, you need to invest more time in discovery. Maybe you don’t have any discovery at all and you are pressured to give precise Kanban forecasts based on that - well, this is a good way to communicate it and to show the impact of not doing enough exploration and discovery work.

What is also important is that the range of numbers implies that the scope can be changed, and this is one of the most important things here, if not the most important one. With this, you have a lever and one of the most impactful collaboration tools out there.

With this, you are also opening different options. And with various options, it’s much easier to have a successful forecast, than just betting everything on one case and trying to make that one case happen. Options are something that people appreciate and they will be thankful for them.

From all this, you can see that a successful forecast will rely on what you show to people and the method that you are using. So, try to be on the same side and seek techniques and tools that provide this.

What may surprise you is that when you show people the right levers their behavior will change. And also the whole situation can change - from having the feeling of being on separate sides to seeing that you are all on the same side and collaborating on your way to success.

Have in mind as well, with all that was said previously - the ways of forecasting will also affect how people perceive you and the forecast. So, use this to your and everyone else’s advantage.

What I can also recommend to you is to take a deeper dive into the forecasting models that exist. You should not only get to know all of them but also see where you are and where you can be. Maybe some other model will work much better for you and your communication, so don’t miss out on it.

Communication To Collaboration

As you could have seen by now, the biggest achievement of communication is collaboration. This is the state where you want to be and this is the end goal of all communication. You are all on the same side and you are all working together towards success.

And it’s not only about success, but if you don’t collaborate in a good way, many other problems can arise. If you don’t include them, people can become less motivated very fast, they can stop being interested and then they stop caring.

They just do their daily work and what they have been asked to do, as much as they need, and go the other way. Not something that you would like to have at any company and yet, various companies have this.

Keep in mind that this can happen on various levels. It can happen on the team level, on the team lead level, but also at the higher level with management and leadership. People always need to find ways to collaborate in a good way because this is one the best ways to ensure success.

I won’t talk about this in a long manner since I suppose that this probably sounds good and rational, but I know it’s often not the case. As said in the beginning, you need to own your forecast and its success so make sure that you are constantly inviting collaboration. There are so many ways to do this, and various free tools like ProdGoal that can help you on your journey with some great Agile and Kanban forecasting capabilities, so try things out and practice until you get there.

Based on all of this, you can choose which path you want to take and what kind of future you want to build. I certainly hope you will make the right choices, but even if you don’t, don’t worry too much - keep an eye on yourself, always get up when you fail and you will find the right path to forecasting and communicating. And you will become a true master of it. Good luck!