Escaping the Feature Factory

TL; DR: Escaping the Feature Factory — Refocussing From Output to Outcome

The feature factory fate is not inevitable; there is hope to avoid becoming a mere cog in the machinery. Learn how!

In many large organizations, Scrum teams fall into the ‘feature factory’ trap, focusing more on churning out features than creating real value. It’s too bad that this shift undermines Agile principles and hampers long-term success and innovation. Let’s discuss how and why this happens and what we can do to break the chains of the feature factory.

Escaping the Feature Factory — Refocussing From Output to Outcome — Age-of-Product.com

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The Organizational Reasons Behind the Feature Factory

There are multiple reasons why organizations start as or drift into the feature factory anti-pattern, from focusing on short-term results to functional, non-cooperative silos to neglecting technical excellence to the illusion of controlling uncertainty with planning:

  1. Lack of Clear Vision or Strategy: Scrum teams may lack direction without a clear product vision or strategy, resulting in a scattered approach to development where the emphasis is on shipping features rather than solving specific problems or achieving strategic goals.
  2. Short-Term Focus: Driven by quarterly results or immediate performance metrics, these organizations push for quick deliveries, often at the expense of long-term value or sustainable development.
  3. Overemphasis on Utilization: Prioritizing keeping teams busy with feature work over allowing time for creativity, exploration, and addressing technical debt also contributes to a feature factory environment.
  4. Obsession with Output Over Outcome: Many large organizations prioritize the number of features produced over the actual impact or value these features have. This focus on output, rather than outcome, leads to a disconnection from the real needs of the customers or the market.
  5. Silos and Lack of Cross-Functional Collaboration: Large organizations often have siloed departments, which can hinder cross-functional collaboration essential for understanding the broader context of features and their impact, often resulting in local optimization efforts.
  6. Excessive Planning and Control: The illusion of control among managers results in a tendency to over-plan and control every aspect of the development process. This approach stifles agility and innovation, leading to a feature factory mindset that focuses on executing predefined plans rather than adapting to change.
  7. Neglecting Technical Excellence: The pressure to continuously deliver features, often in conjunction with tight or arbitrary deadlines, can lead to neglect of code quality, technical debt, and architectural improvements, essential for long-term agility and product health.
  8. Limited Empowerment of Teams: Scrum teams in large organizations often face constraints due to hierarchical decision-making structures instead of self-management. This command structure limits their autonomy and ability to make decisions based on their insights, leading them to focus on delivering assigned tasks rather than contributing to strategic goals.
  9. Misalignment of Incentives: Often, large organizations measure and reward management success based on the number of features delivered rather than on the value these features add to the product or the customer experience.
  10. Inadequate Feedback Loops: In large organizations, we can see a disconnect between the Developers and the end-users, often by design; for example, the sales organization restricts access to customers. The disconnect leads to a lack of valuable feedback that would help steer the product in the right direction by validating hypotheses.

All of these reasons are reflective of systemic issues within large organizations.

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How to Start Chipping Away from the Feature Factory Model, one Bit at a Time

In a large organization where you’re part of a Scrum team but not in a position to influence broader agile transitions, there are still practical steps you can take to combat the feature factory anti-pattern:

  • Clarify Vision and Strategy: Organize a stakeholder workshop to craft a clear, concise product vision statement. Display this vision prominently in your team space and reference it in all Scrum events. Support the Product Owner in creating a Product Goal collaboratively as a team to encourage discussions on how your work aligns with this vision, fostering a sense of purpose and focus.
  • Promote a Balanced Roadmap: Collaborate with product management to design a roadmap that includes features to pay down technical debt or improve infrastructure alongside new features. Justify investing in technical excellence to the leadership by demonstrating the long-term cost savings and increased speed of future feature development due to a more robust and flexible codebase.
  • Champion Outcome-Based Metrics:
    1. Start by identifying key customer pain points and align them with metrics that matter in the overall context, for example, customer satisfaction scores.
    2. Present a case to management on how these metrics correlate with business success.
    3. Suggest an experiment where the team addresses one of the key customer pain points.
    4. Once solved, use a Sprint Review to highlight these outcomes, connect them directly to business KPIs, and start a dialogue about addressing other customer pain points.
  • Start Breaking Down Silos: Create a “community of practice” within your area where members from different teams share insights and challenges. Moreover, invite interested stakeholders from other departments to participate in the initiative. This cross-pollination of ideas can lead to a better understanding of the overall system and identify shared objectives that support the broader goals.
  • Establish Direct Feedback Channels: Develop a user group from a cross-section of your product’s user base. Set up regular feedback sessions and include your team members in these discussions. Document user feedback and share it organization-wide, demonstrating the value of directly connecting with users and customers to improve product success.
  • Align Incentives with Team Goals: Propose team-based rewards or recognition programs that celebrate milestones related to customer satisfaction or improved operational metrics. Fostering team incentives over individual incentives aligns your Scrum team’s work with creating real value. It can be an excellent first step toward changing how success is measured and recognized.
  • Exercise Empirical Process Control: In your Retrospectives, identify instances where the feature factory mindset prevailed. Suggest countermeasures your team can initiate and track the impact of changes over several Sprints to demonstrate continuous improvement to stakeholders. Use these successes to advocate for support to address feature factory-driven anti-patterns outside your Scrum team’s reach.
  • Foster Technical Excellence: Propose a “quality first” initiative, where the team allocates a fixed percentage of each Sprint to refactoring or addressing technical debt. Moreover, enhance your Definition of Done to reflect this practice of focusing on technical quality. Communicate the long-term benefits to stakeholders by linking quality improvements to reduced maintenance costs and higher customer satisfaction.
  • Apply Lean Thinking: Map the team’s value stream to identify non-value-adding activities. Propose small experiments to management, such as eliminating one unnecessary process step, and measure the impact. Share successes widely to build a case for further lean initiatives.
  • Prioritize Learning and Innovation: Dedicate a part of each Sprint’s capacity to innovation and research, where the team can work on something outside the Sprint Backlog that may benefit everyone in the long run. The benefit could be new technology, a process improvement, or a creative solution to a persistent problem. Share the outcomes and benefits of these R&D moments with the broader organization to demonstrate their value.
  • Advocate for Sustainable Work Practices: Use Sprint Retrospectives to identify signs of overwork and discuss them openly with the team and the management. Develop a plan to present to management showing how a sustainable pace leads to higher quality work and better long-term results, challenging the culture of immediate results over sustainability.

By focusing on these practical, team-level actions, you can begin to shift away from the feature factory mentality and influence change through the example you set. It’s about making the most of your autonomy, demonstrating the value of an alternative approach, and gradually influencing others through positive outcomes.

Food for Thought

Consider the following questions to help your organization to move beyond the feature factory and embrace agility fully:

  1. How can we measure and ensure that the changes we implement effectively move us away from a feature factory model?
  2. What strategies can we employ to maintain the momentum of change and prevent a reversion to old habits as we “scale” agile practices across the organization?
  3. How do we balance the needs for cross-functional collaboration and autonomy within Scrum teams in a large, traditionally siloed organization?

Conclusion

In the trenches of large, traditional organizations, Scrum teams can still navigate away from the feature factory trap by adopting practical, team-centric actions. Scrum teams can align closer with Agile principles by championing outcome-based metrics, advocating for a balanced product roadmap, and clarifying the product vision. Fostering direct feedback channels, aligning team incentives with value creation, prioritizing technical excellence, and encouraging innovation by tackling silos can drive continuous improvement, even if it will be a slow process characterized by setbacks.

You just need to start with what is within your team’s reach instead of hoping for a life-changing intervention from the C-level.

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