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Quality Doesn’t Matter (until it does)

The most common failure in managing products is the attempt to demand more of the team than is possible. When you dictate the scope, resources, and date, your team has no choice but to deliver sub-par quality.

Have you heard the metaphor of the three-legged stool? Quality sits on the legs of scope, resources, and time. If you reduce any of these, you have a wobbly seat. There are four aspects of any project: scope, resources, time, and quality. They're all connected.

  • Scope is the work to be done

  • Resources are typically the people and funding to do the work

  • Time is the window of delivery

  • Quality is a measure of the results—often measured in terms of defects.

If you require a certain feature set and have a limited number of resources—that is, both scope and resources are “fixed”—then the variables are time and quality. Either we’ll do a good job and deliver it whenever it’s done, or we’ll deliver it on a date with questionable quality.

The most common failure in managing products is the attempt to demand more of the team than is possible. We dictate the scope, resources, and date—and the team knows the scope and date are impossible given their resources—so they have no choice but to deliver sub-par quality. For example, there’s a big swim meet this weekend and I don’t want people parking in my yard. I have limited money and only myself and my neighbor to do the work. Time and resources are fixed. Therefore, scope and quality are the variables. What can I accomplish in this short time frame? Obviously, I cannot build a brick-and-mortar fence—that would take weeks. My neighbor and I can put up some traffic cones with yellow tape and perhaps some “No Parking” signs made with cardboard and markers—adequate quality for the time constraint. A popular agile technique is “time boxing” where we do a limited amount of quality work within a 2- to 4-week timeframe with a dedicated team. For example, in the context of a web site, we spend two weeks getting the site setup and build a single page. Everybody still happy? Do you like the look-and-feel? Do you like the navigation? Okay, let’s build an About Us page. Still OK? Good, now let’s add a product page, then another page, and so on and so on. We keep iterating until the work to be done is completed or until a critical date is reached. In this case, resources and quality are fixed; date and scope are variable. By the way, for most organizations, resources are fixed. Adding people to a project usually slows down the team, at least in the short-term, as the new person has to get caught up with the plan and the requirements plus all the institutional knowledge that the team has acquired. And quality doesn’t matter. Until it does. But then it’s too late.

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