In June of this year I saw Dr Andy Carmichael talk about Irrefutable Demand at Agile in the City (London). The main take-away from that talk was that “irrefutable demand” often isn’t. Demands from stakeholders that seem absolutely concrete with absolutely no wriggle-room are often in fact negotiable in some way – particularly with respect to deadlines and scope.
This thinking was echoed within talks I’ve heard Allan Kelly give recently (including at Agile Cambridge), as well as a workshop by Özlem Yüce that I attended today. Allan said that deadlines are elastic; they can be stretched depending upon other things you might value, and the impact of that “stretching”. Özlem’s Cost of Delay workshop showed how to quantify this impact. Is a deadline set internally or externally? What is the impact on value if it is delivered a month early? What is the impact on value if delivered a month late? Even seemingly irrefutable regulatory deadlines can be analysed according to the impact of not meeting the deadline, the risk involved, etc – although the irrefutability is obviously rather lower than a deadline chosen by a stakeholder to spur a team along.
On my way home, I heard the news about The Prime Minister’s ill-fated speech, delivered on the final day of the Conservative Party Conference. The speech was notable for a few reasons: a “prankster” who breached security, some faults with the signage on-stage and a terrible cough and sore throat that made the speech particularly excruciating to watch.
It was this last point – the cough – that puzzled me the most. News reports claim that Theresa May had been suffering from a cold all week. So why did she give the speech under these circumstances?
I began to wonder if the demand – in this case, the demand to make a speech at the conference – was an irrefutable deadline. Something timetabled in that she could not avoid. Or was the demand, like most demand described by Andy, Allan and Özlem, in some way refutable.
Could Theresa May have changed the timing of her speech? Probably not. It was a closing speech at the conference, sot couldn’t have been pushed back any later. Could it have been moved earlier? That might’ve been worse if she was recovering from illness.
But then, did the PM need to give a speech at all? She’s under fire from her own party, but in retrospect I’m fairly certain that “no speech” would have been better than the “disaster speech”. In the same way that a good Product Owner or Software Engineer should be upfront about the challenges they think they might encounter when undertaking a piece of work, perhaps she should have simply explained that she was unwell.
There were alternative options. She could have released details of the new policies included in her speech, perhaps announced by an up-and-coming backbench MP who would pose little threat to her position as leader. She could have delayed the speech, holding a separate event later in the week at another location. But no. She delivered the speech, and it was seen as a calamity.
I assume that she thought abandoning the speech would have made people angry or upset. I also suppose that she hadn’t really considered moving it, because the expectations and timing of the closing conference speech are fairly irrefutable.
It would be far easier to criticise if we hadn’t all, at some point or another, agreed to a demand out of fear. Far easier to criticise if we hadn’t ever agreed because of our ill-judged desire to keep someone happy. Far easier to criticise if we hadn’t agreed to a deadline due to an almost certainly incorrect assumption that the demand was completely fixed and non-negotiable. Far easier to criticise if we hadn’t all, at some point in our lives, coughed our way through something instead of trying to find a better way.
Image: Creative Commons. DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr.