Relaxing on a beach, lying on the warm, soft sand, listening to the meditative sounds of the ocean waves….. just thinking about that scene can begin to relax even the busiest mind.
But for the active types, there’s no time for lying around when they can be running down the beach, enjoying the ocean breeze as they take in the view. Rather than venturing into the soft sand, runners stay close to the water’s edge, even risking wet shoes caused by the occasional rogue wave. Why? Because the water from the incoming waves firms up the sand, making it easier to run.
Remember the sunbathers lying around in the soft sand? As the afternoon turns to evening, they’ll be less enamored with that same ankle-deep sand as the softness of their footing bogs down each step they take towards the boardwalk, finding themselves exhausted when they finally reach firmer ground.
Product teams often find themselves bogged down by “soft sand” in the form of inefficient business processes, requirements, or operations. Nothing is quick. Everything is a challenge. Even the simplest tasks contain a hidden roadblock, open question, or unnecessary effort.
The term “soft sand” is meant to illustrate the little things in daily work life that aren’t necessarily wrong because they accomplish the goal. But rather than propelling the team forward, soft sand tends to cause a drag on progress, slowing the team down, if only for a few minutes.
How would your team spend an extra three weeks a year?
Rather than brushing aside these small annoyances, dismissing them as “part of the job,” consider the cumulative effect of alleviating 1, 5, or 10 of these “soft sand” issues. Five minutes saved each day — what does it matter? Well, for a six-person Scrum Team, five minutes a day per team member equals 30 minutes per day, 2.5 hours a week, 10 hours each month, and 120 hours a year. What could your team do with an extra 120 hours each year?
And that’s just one spot of soft sand. What if the team found 10 of those small, seemingly insignificant issues each year? By relentlessly pursuing soft sand, over time, teams increase productivity to the equivalent of an additional full-time headcount in available work hours with no budget increase, no hiring drama. That’s real development time, not an insignificant annoyance nor something to be tolerated.
Not only does eliminating soft sand in team processes create extra time, but it also reduces frustration and other adverse emotional side effects of time wasters. Teams are more productive and happier…. Who doesn’t want that?
What does “soft sand” look like?
Every organization is unique in how they identify and eliminate soft sand. Even after diligently sweeping away every last spec, new patches of soft sand will continue to emerge. The more companies purge these inefficiencies, the easier and faster they are recognized and rectified.
Some examples of soft sand could be:
- Requirements in various locations (time wasted searching for User Stories, non-functional requirements, copy and copy updates, image assets, comps, wireframes, etc.)
- Inconsistent methods of documenting changes (change log or update to the User Story or notification in comments or an email, etc.)
- Providing too much detail in requirements (causes developers to fully consume information only to discover it isn’t actionable or necessary to accomplish the task at hand)
- Too many approval cycles (the more approvals, the more changes, the longer to production)
- Spending too much time on the insignificant (collaborate on the big stuff, provide decisions on the small stuff)
- Over-thinking estimations (spending too much time trying to guess the unknown rather than creating a Spike or simply taking a swag and learning from it)
- Allowing edge-cases to dominate refinement (time wasted in conversations around use cases that may never materialize instead of explicitly choosing not to support certain scenarios at this time)
Soft sand exhibits itself in an infinite number of scenarios. Anything from work schedules to tools to hardware or equipment could contribute to soft sand. The key is to find it, acknowledge it, and eliminate it.
“The important thing is not your process. The important thing is your process for improving your process.”
~ Henrik Kniberg, Agile trainer and author
Soft sand is low-hanging fruit. Grab it.
Aside from the efficiency and productivity gains, identifying and eliminating soft sand is substantially easier and faster than major organizational change efforts. Small tweaks here and there don’t require massive buy-in, administrative overhead, or a roll-out plan. The teams just do it.
The small changes that address soft sand are ripe for testing and tweaking. Teams can try a slight shift in how they do a single task, see if it works, and adjust if it doesn’t work with little effort or disruption. A pilot team, deep investigative discovery, alternate solutions — all the concepts that go into major change plans — are unnecessary and contrary to the theory of soft sand. K.I.S.S. with a slight twist tells the story perfectly: Keep It Simple & Small.
Soft sand is often overlooked or not considered a substantive component to impact productivity. It’s not sexy and it doesn’t deliver short-term results. Over time, however, not only do teams reap the benefits of higher productivity, habits form to perpetuate the continual evaluation and improvement of how teams operate. While grand gestures may make the company newsletter or annual meeting, Scrum Teams are sprinting every day. That daily effort needs to be supported with firm ground.