Team disorder: Featuritis

Teams form an entity – and they can have disorders. There are a couple of team disorders worth looking at. One of them is Featuritis. And here is the not really serious medical guide to this disorder.

Featuritis is a team disorder in which a development team develops as many features as possible while disregarding product quality and thus risking the overall product success as well as the individual health.

Symptom: feature over value

It may appear that a specific team is affected by featuritis. Such are however just the emergent effects caused by the infected individuals (patients) in and around the team. In most cases of featuritis, there are still not infected individuals in the team or close to the team (significant others).

Symptoms of a mild featuritis are:

  • team commits to more user stories than they can achieve.
  • product owner complains about slow progress.
  • leaders (especially product owner, project leads, scrum masters) try to increase the team velocity.
  • pace is high and team members feel high pressure to deliver more.
  • ever so often, a new feature, or improvement is added to the backlog as a must for the next release.

Featuritis quickly grows into a serious disorder

  • Vital aspects are systematically neglected or even skipped like testing, test automation, UX, refactorings, gathering feedback and more.
  • Quality of the increments delivered by the team deteriorates.
  • Releases have many bugs and nobody has time to fix them.
  • Task forces are formed to solve the most urgent problems.
  • Team members neglect basic duties outside the development team.
  • Team members work over-time.

In its fatal stadium,

  • team members burn out, leave the team or even the company;
  • stakeholders complain loudly about the software and what a bunch of idiots the developers are;
  • and fatally, the development is stopped and the energy and money invested lost.

Note that featuritis can result in a vicious cycle as it brings the patients easily into “survival mode”. In this mode, patients act more on instinct and have limited capabilities to think rationally, and treat the situation objectively.

Cause: social germs

The hazarduous setting for featuritis is when budget and feature demand are not well matched, i.e. not enough budget for the desired functionality is allocated.

Such a setting does not per se lead into featuritis, it needs the presence of one or more social germs for the disorder to manifest. The following social germs are generally known to have high correlation with outbreak of featurits:

  • Promised Too Much: Sponsor or product owner basically promised everybody what they wanted to hear to get the budget and are pushing to get it all.
  • Overdemand: Need for better support of work by the product is so strong that users and their management demand much more than budget allows to deliver.
  • Underrating: Sponsors or PO heavily underestimate the costs of development and demand too small budgets from higher management while striving to achieve the same results.
  • Overambition: Team and product owner want to develop the greatest product ever instead of creating something practical, down to earth and exactly right for the users and the problem at hand.
  • Iceberg complexity: Nobody can believe that something is actually as complex as it is and constantly underestimates the effort needed.
  • Fear for Job: A nagging fear of underperforming inspires the team to try to deliver much more than is possible.
  • Ivory Tower: Not enough understanding of what users really need cause development of loads of unneeded features.
  • Power Misuse: Management beliefs that software will cost as much as you sponsor. So they allocate only half or even less of what is really needed.
  • Greed: Sponsor wants to press out as much as possible from the teams.
  • Contract trap: A contract between client and supplier freezes the gap between budget and costs, with penalties for the supplier.
  • Hunting Fever: Market opportunity is so fantastic and customers are queueing to buy the product and so everybody grows really impatient to deliver.

Be aware that in most cases of featuritis, more than one of these social germs are at lose.

First: take emergency measures

Once featuritis is suspected, some emergency measures are usually advisable:

  • Create awareness of the situation by making the gap and the urgency visible to the patients and the significant others.
  • Create room for the patients and the significant others to inspect and identify the germ that caused the harm and to develop counter measures.  Drugs administered here are manyfold and can include:
    • adding featurits as focal topic in the team retrospective; maybe schedule an extra-retro.
    • removing items from the sprint backlog, or better, enabling team or product owner to do so; so the team slows down and has time to get out of survival mode;
    • stopping the frantic work for a few days, getting time to breathe and to think clearly and rationally, e.g. in a team workshop;
    • sending  the team home for the rest of the week to relax and to gain distance. Followed up by a retro or even a longer workshop immediately afterwards.
  • As an emergency measures for patients in or close to a burn-out, it may be needed to separate these patients immediately from the team to limit the damage done to those patients.

Second: understand the social germs

As can be seen from the causes, featuritis is a complex syndrome rather than just a specific illness.

The therapist must

  • identify the social germs that cause the disalignment of budget and cost.
  • understand the force of the specific germ, i.e. the size of the gap between budget and costs and the potential for negotiation.
  • understand the urgency of action.

It is key for the therapis to go on site, observe and feel the team and the persons around, and to talk to them.

Note that the different germs have their preferred habitats and special characteristics. Knowing such things help in narrowing down the culprits in a specific situation.

Third: Administer drugs and therapy

Once the appropriate emergency measures have been applied, the therapist can work on the culprits, i.e. the social germs at lose. Again, measures are manyfolds. Here are some hints.

Regularly taking the patients and the significant others into an Essentials workshop to refocusing on the essential parts has been observed to show good results for the following germs: Promised Too Much, Underrating, Overambition and Hunting fever.

An Essentials workshop must be combined with Rigid prioritization. A known successful approach is to enforce basic agile project management: team estimates size with story points, measures velocity, forecasts in/out and negotiates with stakeholders the order in the backlog so the next release forms a meaningful package. Important: neither size estimates nor velocity are negotiable. Team and stakeholders can only negotiate release dates and the order in the backlog. For this negotiation, the Essentials Workshop would be a good place.

Rigid prioritization can only work if the team and stakeholder have a Common business vision. I.e. team and stakeholder agree upon their understanding of the significant problem to address, the relevant solution to create and the strategy on how to do so.

In case of the Ivory Tower germ, User-centredness and methodology from the field of user experience design must be administered.  There are two basic procedures. In both approaches the patients must invest a significant effort. This can meet with resistance from patients and needs sensitivity from the therapist.

  • In the first approach, the patients do user research and develop a model of users and their needs. This model then drives further development. The team use the established relationship with users to form a closed feedback loop between users and the team to test and improve the solution.
  • In the second approach, the patients form a hypothesis about users and their needs and use this hypothesis to drive development. They in addition establish a closed feedback loop with users to test and improve their hypothesis and the solution.

While the second approach, at a first glance, seems more promising for patients (the team can continue forward), the risk of forming an inadequate hypothesis and staying with it is significant and the guesswork germ would be still effective.

Overdemand, Hunting fever and Iceberg complexity cause a pronounced conflict between expectations and realistically achievable results. As such, the therapist must first create Conflict visibility and then help patients and significant others to form and accept Realistic expectations.

The Contract trap as such is not really a germ causing Featuritis. Rather it acts as a catalyst and accelerates the development of the illness. Its most dangerous aspect is that it can reduce or even annihilate the effects of the common drugs against Featuritis. Essentials workshop, Rigid prioritization, User-centredness, Realistic expectations, as well as Conflict visbility do not work well if at all.

Fourth: Start prevention

The social germs behind featuritis are part of our society and infections cannot be avoided. To prevent an oubreak of featuritis, a strong an trained immune system is important.

Thus a team should establish a sensitivity to monitor and detect symptoms of featuritis and to counteract. The agile culture of Inspect and adapt is well suited for this purpose.

In addition, counter-measures against featuritis are also suited as preventive measures: Common business vision, User-centredness, Essentials workshop, Rigid prioritization and Realistic expectations are all measures that have long-lasting positive effects and are effective especially as preventive measures.

In addtition, teams and stakeholder can reduce the risk of a fatal infections by avoiding some especially hazardous situations. Here a a few examples:

  • Showing off and trying to lure stakeholders into commitment with promising solutions (Promised Too Much) in a situation of Overdemand, or Hunting fever.
  • Falling into the Contract trap while Power Misuse or Greed germs are at lose.
  • A situation of Overdemand, Hunting fever and Iceberg complexity.

Conclusion: assume some sort of Featuritis

Featurits is a significant team disorder and deserves attention in any development team, from the beginning.

There are several other team disorders worth considering: Blameism, Roleification, Group Think, Vision Disconnect and Conflict Shushiopy.