Think back to the last time you released to your customers. There was probably a brief feeling of satisfaction, hopefully a validation from the customer that you delivered what they wanted, and your team learned a thing or two about how effective they are at deploying and testing the changes that were delivered with the release. Soon afterwards, the team gets to start all over again and these lessons are forgotten.
If you think about a long term relationship, when two people haven’t talked for a while they can get nervous. "Does he still remember what I said about what we were going to do?". "I wonder if they still feel the same way about me?". This phenomenon is also present in product development, and the longer your team goes before releasing, the bigger impact these psychological (and measurable) effects have on the profitability of your business goals.
Keeping delivery staff satisfied
When a change is delivered to the customer that meets their needs, the team gets a big boost in motivation. The team is thanked and hopefully rewarded for their efforts, and sales and marketing have a great new story to tell. During this period of "delivery afterglow", staff are intrinsically motivated to work harder as they feel a responsibility for and purpose to their job. After a while however, staff can revert to their instincts to question how important their job really is, leading to the "I’m just a cog in a wheel" mentality. "Was what we delivered really that big of a deal?". "I wonder if we can repeat that success again?".
When release cycles are short enough, this feeling of satisfaction becomes constantly present and creates the environment where people love to do their job not just because of their compensation, but because of the satisfaction they get out of doing it through regular positive feedback. An environment like this is contagious – staff outside of the successful team want to learn their methods and repeat their success, and staff on the successful team are happy to talk about it with friends and potential customers.
What have you done for me lately?
From the customer point of view, they also experience similar emotions that have an impact on the profitability of your delivery efforts. If a long period of time has elapsed between when the customer got a release with changes, they may begin to wonder if you still understand their vision. "Do they know what’s changed in my market since last time we met?". "I hope they understood what I said!". "I wish I could talk to them more without bothering them!". When release cycles are long, this risk of changing priorities and incorrect assumptions has a higher cost. When a manufacturing plant releases a part on to the next station that has a problem, it is often caught via quality gates when assembled as part of the next process to stop the line from moving it forward. In product development information is our inventory, and our customers are the quality gate that matters most.
If an incorrect assumption is made about a change or feature and not validated with the customer early, hundreds of other changes can be based on this incorrect assumption and they are all impacted if the customer finds them to not be valid once released to them. Engineers can lose motivation dramatically if they release a big feature that took a long time to implement only to find that it all has to be reworked. It makes both economic and behavioral sense to release more frequently to ensure that the relationship between the team and its customers is aligned as often as is reasonable.
Practice makes perfect
When releasing changes to the customer, there are delivery costs that are only incurred at the time of release. These usually include things like deployment, user acceptance testing, updating user documentation, and gathering feedback. When release cycles are long, these activities are infrequent so there is low motivation to getting better at them. If a team only releases to their customer once every 6 months, they feel the pain of these activities infrequently and so they are willing to see it as such – a necessary evil that isn’t worth the time to improve. When releases are more frequent, the cost of manual or inefficient delivery processes is more apparent and staff can more clearly see the need for making them as efficient as possible.
Optimizing release process costs is doubly profitable as it both reduces the cost of performing the process, and reduces the time for return on investment due to enabling more value to be delivered per release since a smaller percentage of the effort that goes into a cycle is taken up by these processes. It also increases staff job satisfaction because more time is spent delivering value that is the direct result of the innovation inherent in the creation of IT assets, not simply drudging through excessive process overhead that hasn’t been optimized due to low motivation to do so.
Motivating for excellence
A final important consideration that impacts staff retention and job satisfaction is the opportunity that frequent releases create for evaluating competence. When release cycles are long, staff are able to report being done with tasks but this is not truly verifiable until it is released to the customer. Many organizations realize the inherent value in retaining top talent but struggle to know how best to help them grow. One of the best ways to help our employees be more effective is to have regular checkpoints during which to measure both quantitative and qualitative outcomes. An IT asset release is a perfect time to do this.
The SCRUM methodology encourages teams to hold a sprint retrospective meeting during which the team can be candid about their successes and opportunities for improvement since the last iteration. When iterations of effort are reported as "complete" at the end of each sprint but not released to customers, unchecked problems with deployment and missed alignment with customer needs is not caught and can leave a team with a misplaced perception of success. This perception is then aligned when the release actually occurs, and the reset between what was perceived and what is reality can be harsh and demotivating.
Rather than delay the inevitable, by releasing to customers more often before starting new work, leaders that evaluate their staff have a better gauge for where staff are doing well and where their skills may need help. An effective manager will use this period to both reward and compliment staff on their improvement and be courteous in helping them see where they need to improve. Though this increased confrontation with competence can initially be met with feelings of uneasiness, it soon becomes a regular part of work and employees begin to expect honest feedback and to be complimented and rewarded when they improve.