Feedback loops are found in all systems, organic or inorganic. They propel the recirculation of hot or cold air to raise or lower temperatures; they drive the idea exchange that helps businesses fine-tune operating strategies. Yet, nowhere are feedback loops more important but also misunderstood than in software delivery.
Attaining the “holy grail” of software development—gaining maximum efficiency and maintaining velocity while reducing or eliminating wait times and waste—involves a variety of value stream activities that generate complex feedback loops. These loops are not sequential. They must operate in tandem and in sync with one another within a constrained environment or delivery flow will be disrupted. Understanding, mapping and optimizing this “ecosystem” is essential to ensuring all feedback loops are timed appropriately and no software activity is thrown off schedule.
Misperceptions of Software Feedback Loops
Much confusion arises among business leaders regarding the role of feedback loops in software delivery because they are also invaluable in other business activities. There, feedback loops operate in both open and closed systems. A system, whether open or closed, is a set of elements that take inputs through a phased transition to the emergence of an output.
For example, assume a bank is developing a new depositor service, and although it announces the service will be available soon, it does not solicit specific feedback on how the service will work. Even if it receives random feedback from the public, it is coming from outside the controlled environment. That’s an open system. If the bank hosts customer focus groups and monitors the outcomes of specific variables without any opportunity for outside influences to impact the process, the activity is taking place in a closed system.
The use of a closed system, whether in business or software development, embraces the principles of systems thinking—the shift in mindset away from linear to circular. With systems thinking, there are a half-dozen defined components, one of which is feedback loops. Understanding feedback loops is an essential part of value stream management to achieve the goal of delivering value to customers faster.
Feedback loops can have a very positive or negative impact on software flow because awareness of and action on effective feedback impacts all parts of the system. But, before software leaders and teams can address their feedback loops, they must identify them in the value stream and understand the causality of each loop. As you identify feedback loops, patterns start to develop. These patterns can be direct or indirect, and feedback may need to be amplified or throttled, automated or removed altogether based on the loop’s causality.
Optimizing the System
Right now, feedback loops are likely disrupting software delivery flow and impeding velocity for millions of companies around the globe because software professionals, from project managers to software engineers, don’t understand them. Even though they recognize that software activities are taking place and that one activity may impact others, they don’t adequately consider the fact that information and material flow are interconnected, as are request flow, development flow and operations flow. They don’t perceive that software delivery is like a three-dimensional game of chess, with the pieces moving around the board multi-dimensionally.
They also haven’t analyzed their feedback loops in detail so they can adjust based on reality, not perception or plan. Even if they have mapped the flow and the loops, most are unaware of the severe negative consequences even a seemingly minor issue can cause.
Follow a Real Example
Here’s an example that mirrors real-life scenarios I have witnessed time and again. Assume that for a new feature request, Epic 1 has entered Intake. The project gets into the Design phase and other work starts moving across the organization. Since everything is interconnected, the User Story ends up in Backlog waiting for the Epic to be completed. Two more User Stories are completed but the Epic has not moved, so they all sit in Backlog.
Once the Epic clears Design, the User Stories start moving to the Plan phase and the Epic can go straight to Development. Soon, User Stories are In Progress and Material Flow kicks in. Somebody is working on a sprint, and someone else is working on those two pieces of code to make the change or implement a story. The DevOps pipeline is flowing, but not as efficiently as it could.
Let’s assume instead that teams and managers now understand the feedback loops, and they have been automated to the greatest extent possible. User Stories are automatically moving from Backlog to In Progress once the Epic enters Development.
When code goes from Build to Test, if a defect is discovered, automated feedback loops can connect to the right User Story and move the code back to In Progress. The developer fixes the defect and it goes right back to In Progress. The company meets its release window.
In addition, once these elements are connected, and everyone understands these loops, management gains traceability across the value stream, which makes everyone, including customers, happy.
Beyond the Basics
The effort described here may sound like a lot of work to the uninitiated, but in practice, the effort more than pays for itself. That’s a great thing because it doesn’t stop here. In our example, as in virtually every software project, there is a lot of valuable human feedback beyond what I have mapped. It could be the information flow from a product manager through a product owner and on to someone tasked with the development portfolio. Or it might flow from testers to the product owner.
Companies don’t have to map all this flow, but they should understand and address its potential impact. Furthermore, as project specifics, customer mindsets and other variables change, teams should adjust accordingly. That may mean creating, amplifying, throttling or automating feedback loops—or removing them altogether.
Once organizations have attained a solid footing, they can explore more options. For example, tools, especially with integrations between and among them, can propel and automate the feedback loops, but they should be aligned, from a systems perspective, with the organization’s project workflow.
Streamlining flow through more efficient feedback loops is only a piece of the puzzle, but it opens up new opportunities such as more easily recognizing and removing waste. It enables organizations to release software faster, which is an imperative for digital transformation.
Even if they don’t develop software in-house, firms that use enterprise software, from Salesforce to SAP S/4HANA, often have teams that modify it. Plus, customers and end users are all clamoring for a no-touch, self-serve digital experience. If a firm doesn’t provide, its competitors will.
In mastering the science of delivering quality code at the right level of velocity, companies propel greater innovation, deliver ROI faster, ensure higher quality with lower costs and deliver products that better fit their intended audience and use. They also position themselves to be value stream leaders, and that pleases everyone from the board room to the sales floor.