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Incremental versus Iterative: The Church Analogy

Along the path towards agility inevitably one comes across the terms iterative and incremental. I have seen many cases where the terms are used interchangeably, even though the mindset behind them is pretty different. To understand how, let’s introduce Roberta and the Church Analogy.

Picture of woman holding a computer and talking

Roberta (in our analogy) is the lead pastor for a rapidly growing church. Her current congregation is usng every inch of space in their current facility, so they know they need to expand and build a brand new campus. But she still has to balance repairs and upgrades to their current facilities, since those are going to continue to be used while the new campus is being built.

Pie Chart showing examples of categories like existing maintenance, new buildings, etcIn our organizations, this duality of building a new campus versus maintaining the current one comes across as building new features (or gaining new capabilities) versus maintaining existing systems or running the business. Some percent of our budget will be used to fund maintenance (sometimes called “Keeping the lights on”), and some percent will be used to fund things that will help grow the business. The goal as a business leader is to make sure that the funding percentages balance out the needs, and that what gets funded in each bucket is done in a way that moves us forward as quickly as possible.

So back to Roberta. She has a plan for handling the existing buildings, but is trying to figure out the best way to tackle the new campus. She has a list of all of the things they are going to build there:

Building plans showing the sanctuary, gym, office and activity fields connected with walkways
  • A new Sanctuary, which will be where Sunday services are held, as well as special events
  • A new activity field, where they can hold outdoor activities like Soccer, softball, or picnics
  • New administrative offices for the staff
  • A new multipurpose building with a gym and classrooms

Right now they meet at a local school, and they have office space they are renting, which also has a hall they can rent out for special events.

The above list are incremental pieces of the entire vision. By completing any one of these, the overall vision gets moved forward. But which one should be first? Or should they build them all before taking advantage of any of them?

Group of women leaders sitting around a conference tableTo answer that, Roberta and her team of leaders needs to know what their needs are as an organization. She knows they want to grow the number of people that can attend (and for sure not lose anyone because it is too crowded). She also knows that the current flow on Sundays doesn’t work well because, well, they’re meeting at a school that was not designed for their needs. She also knows that if they keep growing and not moving, they may run into fire code problems with too many people. And finally, all of the money they put into the school is money not going towards their future.

These criteria can be mapped to the kinds of things businesses look at:

  • Growing the business
  • Retaining existing customers
  • Improving how the business runs
  • Regulatory compliance
  • Cost reduction

With her criteria in mind, Roberta and her team rank the things they want to build:

  • A new sanctuary would help with the overcrowding of services, but would not help with many of the other activities and events they want to host throughout the week. It’s a specialized building, so it ends up at the bottom of the list.
  • The new activity field would enable a lot of outdoor events, but would need shelter in the case of rain, as well as bathrooms and other amenities that were planned to be handled by having the activity field near the multipurpose building.
  • The administrative offices aren’t a dire need – the space they have now works, although the hall rental can be a pain, so it would be good to have some place to hold those events.
  • All of the factors point that the multipurpose building makes the most sense to have at the top of the list. It will give them a place to meet (during the week, as well as on Sundays), provide the amenities for the activity fields, and solve the need to not have to rent the hall.

Roberta and her team feels great about this ordering. Within 12-14 months they’ll have a fully complete multipurpose building with a gym, classrooms, and amenities.

If only they hadn’t stopped, they would find an even better solution.

Minimum Increments

Child kicking a soccer ballIt turns out that one of the big gaps in the community they serve is a lack of soccer programs for youth. There are several programs they can partner with that would draw in a large group of people who could all be potential attendees of the church. But the season starts in 5 months, and they aren’t planning on even starting the activity fields until after the gym is built.

Looking at the requirements for the soccer program, they have the following requirements:

  • 2 soccer fields (which don’t have to be regulation size)
  • Some sort of a shelter
  • Access to bathrooms

Taking the multipurpose building as a whole, Roberta’s team can work with the contractors to figure out smaller pieces of it they can build. The contractors state that the entire foundation has to be poured at one time, but they could then build just the bathrooms and extend the rest of the building from there. There would be a slight increase in cost to do it that way, but they could have the foundation and bathrooms done in 2 months. In the meantime, Roberta talked to the contractors about the fields – they could easily build a single regulation-sized field in two months – it wouldn’t have the lighting systems in place or the sprinkler systems, and they may have to dig up the field after the first soccer season to install those.

What is happening here is that Roberta and her team are taking the initial increments and understanding (with expert help) how they can be decomposed into smaller increments. They are then looking across all of the areas and composing a minimum increment that will solve a need or gain a capability for their organization when it is done.

Construction Begins

Laptop computer sitting on a desk with hands typing on it

With a plan locked in place, Roberta funds the plan, and work begins. The foundation pour goes very smoothly, and the walls begin being built. One afternoon the contractor calls Roberta and her team to the job site:

Hi Roberta! I know that we’ve spent a lot of time looking at plans, so what I wanted to do was have you take a peek at the progress early on to make sure this is looking how you imagine. I had the brick layers build up just to the door frames and window frames, and given where you have the activity field, I wanted you to see if this matches what you expect.

This action by the contractor involves building the first pieces iteratively, by putting a little in place, and then seeking feedback. The first iteration – putting up the door frames and windows – doesn’t give a completed increment. But it does give room for feedback from the customer (in this case, Roberta) and encourages everyone to be on the same page before moving forward.

Similarly in our organizations, we want to strive to be as iterative as we can in building increments. Specifically we want to build small slices of functionality that can be shown. My dear friend Jared Richardson refers to this as Tracer Bullet Development where each iterative slice gives us increasing information and confidence that our increment is on target. Even though the contractor could have built out all of the walls before seeking feedback, by doing the minimum he could in as integrated of a way as possible, he allowed rapid feedback and adjustment – even in a construction project!

Pulling It All Together

Roberta was able to take advantage of a new opportunity by knowing what her goals were, what capabilities were needed for those goals, what increments built those capabilities, and how the increments themselves could be decomposed across her vision into smaller increments, and then composed together in a new way. Once the increment was funded, her team was able to take advantage of the contractors iterative approach to update things with new information.

Graphic showing goals mapping to capabilities, which map to increments, which then combine into minimum increments

It can be easy for organizations to do an initial decomposition into ideas, call those “increments” and feed them to teams, especially if those teams are building it iteratively. But as we saw with Roberta and her team, being able to go one step beyond that – knowing the capabilities, decomposing the increments themselves and using the visibility across the portfolio to recombine them into increments that form exactly what we need to take advantage of market opportunities – is a level of agility that can transform businesses.

(Note: The pictures of “Roberta” and her team came from the amazing “Women of Color in Tech” project offered under a CC Attribution license to #WOCInTechChat. Thanks – they’re amazing!)

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Aaron Held April 24, 2017, 1:57 pm

    I like how you included seemingly uncompromising regulatory and physical constraints in the example.

    I usually use doing a plumbing jobs as an example of non-agile, so if you can add the scheduling some union workers to arrive at a job site then you really will have changed my approach to larger projects!

    The way that capabilities are derived from first principles of running the business was also very clear. I’ve struggled with explaining that concept in the past.

    This one really hit home for me – much appreciated.