Part 3:
What if Football Worked the Way Some Large-Scale Software Development Does?

Imagine you’re part of a football league that rearranges the teams every week after each game. Because of the weekly reshuffle, some teams are left without key skill players like kickers. Your team sometimes has to borrow these players from other teams. Games get held up at crucial moments, waiting until these borrowed players are able to make it to the field! Other players have to leave the field half-way through the game because their commitment was only for the first half. 

Football League Lean Portfolio Management

Not a pretty sight! The quality of the games would be poor to say the least.  Fans would depart in droves, leaving teams bankrupt.

Welcome to the game of large-scale software development as it is being played at many large organizations today. Major projects are stood up and resources are gathered from various business and technical units under complex budgeting arrangements. People have their time split across multiple efforts. Management’s attention focuses on trying to monitor this Rube Goldberg machine. 

In some ways it seems more absurd than our ridiculous sports analogy.

Why would any company operate this way?

“The problem is not with our organizations realizing that they need to transform; the problem is that organizations are using managerial frameworks and infrastructure models from past revolutions to manage their businesses in this one.”1

Mik Kersten

By “past revolutions,” Kersten is referring to earlier technological revolutions. According to Carlota Perez2, these occur about every 70 years. The most immediate predecessor to this software and digital revolution, The Age of Oil and Mass Production, is what many organizations remain stuck in today. It is also the age of Taylorism and Sloan, the age of hierarchy and breaking everything down into repeatable actions by replaceable people. 

This model does not work very well in the age of digital, the age of the customer and fast response, the age of knowledge work.  In fact, it’s well known that this approach doesn’t work. As Kersten notes, many of the executives struggling to transform their organizations know it too. They just don’t know what to do about it. 

Organizing Around Product

There are several responses to this problem and several factors involved in solving it at any company. A key one, and the topic of this third insight in the series on Lean Portfolio Management (LPM), has to do with structure and three critical actions:  

  • Organize our system development capability around products, not projects. 
  • Stop behaving like the crazy football league, building up our teams and then tearing them down again after every game. 
  • Bring the work to the people, not the people to the work.
Lean-Agile Delivery is Powered by Business-IT Alignment Read Part 2 of Series

Minimizing Handoffs and Maximizing Value

Besides having stable teams, we want everyone that we need on the team. We want to minimize handoffs — the business lead handing off to IT, the architect handing off to design, and so on. Everyone associated with the product is brought together. If this sounds like cross-functional agile teams, that’s exactly right. 

Now, we’re extending that concept across the whole set of activities – from sensing a customer need to delivering and supporting a sustainable solution that satisfies that need. Every person, every system, every information flow associated with that end-to-end process is brought together. This combination of people, processes, and systems is dedicated to delivering specific value to a customer. It’s referred to as the value stream.  

The benefits of organizing into value streams include:

  • Aligning people and teams to a common goal
  • Dramatically reducing time-to-market 
  • Minimizing external dependencies, which decreases wait time
  • Accelerating learning and information flow

This clearly makes sense. The friction and “noise” in the system drop dramatically as does waste, thrashing, and late, off-target deliveries.

Read the other insights in this series on Lean Portfolio Management:

The Superhighways of Lean Portfolio Management

What exactly does this have to do with Lean Portfolio Management? A portfolio is likely to be responsible for funding and monitoring multiple value streams. When the portfolio is organized as such, in value streams, the same thing happens for the whole portfolio. Funding, outcome, and capacity monitoring are no longer bogged down in a maze of projects, crisscrossing budgets, and dependencies. Flow occurs all the way from the portfolio down through delivery to the customer and back. Learning and adaptation, at speed, becomes possible. Value streams are the superhighways, the arteries of Lean Portfolio Management. This is good news. 

The struggling executive may think that this all sounds daunting and that’s understandable. The other bit of good news is that there are already people succeeding at this with lessons learned and wisdom to share. Plus, if you’ve achieved some of the basic success practices of Lean and Agile, you can apply those at scale to the implementation of LPM.

  • Start with a vertical slice
    • Don’t attempt a massive waterfall conversion
  • Invite participation
    • Give motivated people the tools they need and let them get the job done, to paraphrase the Agile Manifesto
  • Build alignment between business and IT
    • In the digital age, business and IT have to be quite literally part of the same team, serving the customer.  Don’t make the fatal mistake of thinking this is an IT effort that business people are being invited to participate in.
  • Don’t expect to get your value stream perfect, especially your first
    • It’s hard to carve out a clean, textbook value stream. Don’t study it forever; create it in facilitated session format and start doing and learning.

To complete the end-to-end picture, we need to forge a lean, measurable connection to business strategy, re-examine budgeting, and address how to keep the lean portfolio operating. We’ll take a look at LPM Operations in the next insight in this series.

Ready to Take a Look at How Your Team Plays “Football”?

How is value flowing in your organization?  Are you aligned and adaptable?  Together, we can find your best path forward.


1Project to Product: How to Survive and Thrive in the Age of Digital Disruption with the Flow Framework,
Mik Kersten, 2018.

2Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital, Carlota Perez, 2002.

Art Moore
Art Moore

Arthur “Art” Moore leads the Process Optimization and Design Thinking Solutions teams for SDLC Partners. His career spans software development, practice management, methodology development, training and strategic consulting, in...

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