Agile like sales

August 9, 2007

You may have already noticed that there is often a portion of your project that is not well predictable. You have trouble estimating the effort to implement it and then it actually takes longer than what you guessed. You will be surprised but your sales people can teach you how to deal with unpredictable tasks like that.

Here is a great article by Damon Poole that talks about this: Developers Can Learn a lot From Salespeople

I believe the core of the problem is the intermingling of predictable tasks with unpredictable tasks, amplified by the problems inherent in long iterations. The reason that much of software development is unpredictable is that it involves a fair amount of solving of problems that have not been solved before. Usually though, if you have a new project and it involves solving new problems, it isn’t the whole project that requires research. If you break the project up into parts, I’m sure that you will find that many of the pieces are things that you already know how to do and have value in and of themselves.

The sales deal with a situation where all their tasks/opportunities are unpredictable hence the popularity of the the probability based mechanism of estimating the pipeline. I actually do not believe in the probability approach and many sales organizations just use “in” or “out” method but, anyway, the way sales/marketing mostly deal with the predictability is by increasing the pipeline of opportunities – add more and more qualified prospects until you start hitting your numbers (overly simplified, I know, but for the sake of this post I’ll leave it like that). I do not think R&D can afford this. There are many other factors that would not make this pipeline management model fit development process well but I think it is good to understand it and elements of it are useful indeed. BTW, the agile burndown chart to me resembles the sales quarterly pipeline chart very much. I believe R&D folks can do better than that.

On the other hand not all R&D tasks are unpredictable. If you’re incrementally enhancing something, or if you have done a similar thing before, and you are not integrating a 3rd party solution you do have alot of control in your hands and can predict your future effort fairly well. The “agile” methodology kind of resembles the sales situation and helps you deal with those unpredictable/new tasks, by implementing short iterations and problem filters (as Damon calls them).

So, understand which tasks are unpredictable in your project, implement short incremental releases/iterations and problem filters, and please do not apply “pipeline” management approach with probabilities as your project management process. πŸ™‚


PS: For sales people that want to learn from agile R&D, check out Derek Morrison’ article: Part #1: Implementing an Agile Sales Framework

4 Responses to “Agile like sales”

  1. Alexey I like the comparison – I have written an article on how sales can adopt a few ideas from the agile software framework.

    Part #1: Implementing an Agile Sales Framework

  2. Alexey Says:


    It is really Damon who deserves the comment πŸ™‚

    I have read your article too.

  3. Damon Says:

    Thanks for the kind words.

    Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that anybody use probability based pipeline management in development, only that if you think of software development as a pipeline with well defined stages, then you can get some of the same benefits that salespeople get from their pipeline.

    The filters allow you to find and deal with problems early before they pollute later stages.



  4. Alexey Says:


    I understand you were not suggesting that but thanks for the clarification and for leaving your comment here.

    Great article.


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