Still sticking to the plan?

We know that traditional project management approaches put too much emphasis on the plan. But are we agilists really doing much better?

Listening to the interesting podcast Cautionary Tales (recommended!) I came across the phenomenon of Plan Continuation Bias. It is the effect that people keep following a course that is no longer viable or even safe. Examples are captains that keep going on a collision course or pilots trying to land at their predetermined airport even though weather conditions have made that impossible.

We have also seen this in IT and other complex projects. In a waterfall context this effect was very prevalent. A lot of time was spent on making a detailed plan and a clear goal was formulated. If halfway along the project circumstances had changed (which they most likely did) or assumptions turned out to be false (which they most like did), the plan stayed more often than not unchanged. Stick to the plan, and onwards!

Plan continuation bias is a form of confirmation bias. Signs that validate the chosen path get attention and signs that warn against it get ignored. This is especially true if there’s a lot of pressure. Traditional projects nearing the deadline are prone to evoke this bias in people. There’s no time or mental energy to spend on situational awareness and to stop and reflect.

Projects employing Agile frameworks like Scrum should be far less likely to fall in to this plan continuation bias trap. Baked in these are rules and moments to stop, inspect the situation and adapt the course when necessary. On a micro scale I think plan continuation bias is effectively battled. But I wonder if this also happens on a higher level. How many Agile projects (read here anything you like: release, epic, feature, sprint, …) really reflect on the vision of a project on a regular basis? How many Agile projects evaluate their current strategy and reflect back on alternative strategies (assuming they even have alternative strategies)? From my experience I conclude too few. There’s still a way to go, and it’s beyond just doing sprints.

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