Process Affordances: Ignore at Your own Peril

The Amsterdam airport was able to reduce the amount of urine "spillage" that hit the men's room floor by 80% simply by etching a life-like image of a fly near the urinals' drains. The fly was specifically engineered into the urinals to alter gentlemen's behavior without their having to think about it. The concept is called nudging and it's been used in domains other than restroom sanitation to encourage desired behavior. Other examples include the use of uncomfortable chairs in fast food restaurants to encourage people not to linger and real-time gas mileage displays in cars to encourage more economical driving. If you've read Donald Norman's The Design of Everyday Things then you'll know this as an affordance - a hint given to the user prompting them to take a specific action at a specific time.

Obviously the idea of affordances is directly applicable to devices as well as software usability but it wasn't until I read about the urinal flies that I realized affordances don't always have to have a physical representation. For example, a well designed software process should gently nudge a team to do the right thing. Since there is no one-size-fits-all process that works for all teams it is essential that the process complements the team and that the process's affordances nudge team members to do what's best for the project and the team.

Using a process that lacks the right affordances could have one of two possible outcomes. In the best case, the team abandons the process because they realize subconsciously that it is telling them to do the wrong things at the wrong times. This is bad because it sacrifices repeatability; you've regressed back to an ad hoc, "make it up as we go" state. In the worst case, the team sticks with the process and it leads them astray. This introduces risks into the project and could lead to complete project failure.

Software is already difficult enough to build successfully and processes are supposed to make software development easier. Unfortunately, knowing when something isn't working is not an exact science, but with a dash of experience and little team reflection (for example from regular postmortems) it is possible to figure out when you are working for your process instead of your process working for you. To demonstrate this I am going to tell you a story.

Our Process

My studio team in the Carnegie Mellon software engineering program is charged with building a web-based requirements elicitation tool that helps users follow the SQUARE process out of the SEI. About halfway through the Elaboration Phase of the project (sometime in the spring semester) the project was going downhill. The warning signs were fairly apparent, we were missing milestones, tasking priorities were confusing, and a lot of work was stalling out at different levels of partial completion. Though we knew there was something wrong we weren't really sure what was causing it, what we were doing wrong in our planning and tracking process.

The planning process we were using was fairly simple. At the beginning of the phase we looked at all the activities and artifacts that need to be completed by the end of that phase. For each identified milestone we enumerate specific entry criteria, general tasking, validation procedures, and exit criteria. This is a technique known as ETVX (entry, tasking, validation, and exit). Next we used planning poker to estimate how long we thought each milestone would take to complete. Finally, with this information we created a phase timeline which includes known due dates and dependencies between milestones.

Since we're using an iterative approach to complete work in a phase, iterations follow largely the same planning process on a smaller scale. As a team we identify the milestones on which we will work during the iteration. Each milestone is assigned an owner whose job it is to ensure the milestone is completed by either delegating tasks or working on it themselves. The planning poker estimate is used to determine the approximate workload allocation on the team. This estimate is validated with bottom-up estimates that team members create based on their individual tasking.

There are several good things about this process. First, it's written down and the team follows it. This is good because it means we can produce repeatable results over time. Second, this process makes use of several practices that are generally considered "good" by software experts. ETVX is a great way to clearly identify project milestones. Planning poker is similar to the wide-band Delphi estimation technique. Third, we're using two forms of estimation to validate the plan as more information becomes known. Finally, the engineers responsible for the work determine the specific tasking and creating the bottom-up estimates.

You're Good, but not That Good

In spite of all the good things we were doing, something still wasn't connecting. The big aha! moment occurred about two weeks into the second iteration. Up to that point I had been working on my tasks that had carried over from the first iteration. The team leader noticed that almost no work had been started on the milestones I owned. [An aside: this, to me, says that at least our tracking process works somewhat well.] During the discussion that followed I became extremely defensive when the team leader asked me to shift priorities for the rest of the iteration. What should have been a simple request turned into a heated debate over tasking. I felt compelled to complete the past due work and here was this jerk trying to stop me. "Sure," I thought, "I'll do what you ask, buddy, but when this whole project comes crashing down it's on your head, not mine."

Later, as I looked back at the incident, I wondered to myself, "Why was I so defensive in light of such a simple request?" The reality was that the project wouldn't come crashing down if I shifted priorities and I knew that. So why defend these older tasks when it was obvious that there were more immediate needs?

It turns out that the affordances built into the planning process were encouraging my behavior. There were a few simple things at play that, when combined, decreased our ability to plan effectively.

First, our process encouraged us to plan more work than time allowed. This was due to there being a missing connection between day-to-day progress and the "big picture," the overall plan. Second, though the new team leader may have believed there was consensus, the team in fact did not wholly agree with the priorities for iterations. This behavior was not specifically discouraged by our planning process and so allowed to persist. Third, leftover work was not addressed during planning. Some tasks might simply expire while others may change priority, becoming more or less important with a new iteration. Since this wasn't addressed it created a sense of urgency for individuals carrying over work from iteration to iteration. Finally, assigning milestone owners had unanticipated side effects. The goal was to ensure that someone was taking responsibility for coordinating and monitoring milestone work. This worked so effectively that milestone owners exhausted themselves attempting to finish milestones and resisted changes to the plan that prevented them from finishing what was promised.

When it came time to make a necessary modification to the plan, our process encouraged us to fight against the best course of action for the team. We didn't have the level of flexibility needed due to our process's affordances nudging us to do the wrong things. Milestones were slipping and people wanted to finish what they started. Project priorities were shifting as the project matured but team members were wearing blinders, ignoring the changing facts around us. To stand a chance at success we had to change the affordances in the planning process. We had to nudge the team in a new direction.

Our Solution

To try to solve this problem we decided to incorporate some of the planning principles from Scrum, specifically the product backlog, sprint backlog, and sprint planning meeting, into our planning process. Scrum takes a more task-oriented approach when planning iterations and correlates the sprint backlog with the product backlog. This better encourages the team to not plan more work than there is time to complete while connecting day-to-day work with the overall plan. Scrum also requires that the team reprioritize work when planning iterations and that we agree on the resulting priorities. This will hopefully eliminate the prioritization conflicts we experienced during iterations. With Scrum, leftover work from iterations is saved in the product backlog. This change decreases the anxiety team members feel when work is left undone (because the work is not forgotten) while simultaneously giving the team more flexibility to change direction as the project progresses. Finally, the team, rather than individuals, takes ownership over the milestones held in the product backlog. With each commitment made during iteration planning, the whole team buys in effectively shifting the passion and dedication individuals held for owned milestones to the commitments we agreed on as a team.

I'm not really sure how Scrum is going to turn out for us. I think the most important thing is that we recognized that something was not working and took action to correct it. I personally would rather see the team fail in a new and spectacular way rather than repeating the same mistakes again and again.

Add This to Your Silver Toolbox

Unfortunately, I don't think there is a trick for detecting these sorts of process failures. Data and metrics can help but only if the process is repeatable and the team has the knowledge and discipline to collect the data in the first place. Team postmortems can help but if individuals are afraid to raise concerns, you'll find yourself on a trip to Abilene before you realize it. In many cases, if you think something isn't going well, others are probably thinking the same thing. Once I spoke up I found out that others thought something wasn't working also. I was just the first person who was able to articulate it.

Affordances are powerful but subtle mechanisms. In well designed things, we aren't supposed to be consciously aware of them. But that doesn't mean they always nudge us to do the right thing.


  1. Lovely idea, "affordances" of processes. Many thanks, this will give me a new way of looking at processes. I'll see if I can train myself to spot the affordances in either direction (and I bought "Nudges" along the way).

    lovely thoughts, lovely blog, thanks,



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