Many people like to score an A, deliver their special touch, or go the extra mile. All are ideals to be admired, when appropriate. Spending time to add the third bow to a gift box or washing the dog three times a day are great and wonderful things that others likely appreciate and that give the doer a sense of real accomplishment or personal pride. They are also things you do on your own time, not as part of a time-constrained or cost-bound work project.
As an organization leader, I have seen that extra mile ideal applied across a number of organizational activities. People are communal and want to contribute to others. As an IT leader, I have witnessed the extra mile ideal in project delays and cost overruns created by nice-to-have additions or rework requests from the IT team, not the customer, because IT thought the customer would want to add this thing even when the customer did not know what this thing is or would do. I have dubbed this extra, unwanted, unknown, or zero value-add work, the 27th mile.
The 27th mile comes from my running friends who know and understand that the distance of a marathon is 26.2 miles. If you are still running at mile 27, then you are no longer running the race, you are still running and expanding effort, but you are far past your goal and you are not going to be rewarded for the extra effort. Applied to good organization and IT management, we develop project plans, project budgets, project teams, and other time or scope limited frameworks for a reason. Project scope defines success. When you achieve the agreed to and documented outcomes, you have finished. So why keep working, why run the 27th mile?
Getting rid of the 27th mile effort is crucially important in Agile environments where 7-to-21-day sprints do not accommodate three ribbons on a box or additional effort driven by unconfirmed customer thinking. Moreover, in Agile environments another sprint is coming and if the customer thinks they need a new thing, that thing can be added to the backlog for a future sprint. Everything does not have to be added to the current sprint.
Why be concerned about adding nice-to-haves that may or may not deliver unplanned value to a customer? Exactly! That thought is the exact cause of 27th mile work and unfortunately that thought emerges from people who have been trained to think differently, namely IT people. The idea that a customer might be perfectly happy if IT simply delivers what they have asked for in the project plan and within the scope of the project budget feels counterintuitive to many IT people. After all, everyone likes to get more, right? Wrong.
Avoiding the 27th mile allows your organization to know and plan for what to expect from IT. Organizations are adaptable, particularly when they know what to expect. If IT commits to version 2.3 of the software by the end of the month and delivers exactly that, the organization knows how to benefit from that delivery. Organization members get frustrated and confused by IT that consistently misses the end of the month while trying to deliver version 2.3993 of the software platform. The extra 0.0993 is unknown and potentially unwanted effort.
While the example above describes 27th mile software development, every component of IT from infrastructure to project management to help desk can be guilty of running the 27th mile and adding no value. One of my favorite examples, one that I have seen more times than I can remember, is internal customers dropping off a laptop at the service desk because email is slow or some other annoyance. Then, days later calling the help desk to ask about the laptop only to hear while we had your laptop, we completely re-imaged it and lost your data. The customer wanted faster email, instead the customer received faster email, lost data, and days of wasted time trying to recreate everything that was lost. While the IT person was trying to go the extra mile for the customer, in the end the customer and the organization paid more for a worse outcome.
How Your Organization Can Avoid the 27th Mile
First, make people aware of it. Call it out. Highlight the wasted effort and train every IT employee about the value of reliability and predictability. Training your people to think Agile by delivering small goals continuously helps them understand that the amazing idea they have that the customer did not request can be added to future work rather than stopping current work.
Second, be crisp about success. Educate your IT teams to know what success means in your organization so that they understand and practice stopping once they meet the project goal.
Third, reward people who deliver as expected and coach people that cannot stop running passed the finish line no matter how crisply you define success. Coaching people at this level may require new learning and practice for you as a manager or leader. After all, you might want to over-deliver yourself, so the first person to accept “as expected delivery” concepts is you.
Finally, expanding your team’s understanding of quality management or other large-scale, high-speed production methods, measures, or practices as a way to see work and work products differently. At a minimum introduce project management training and practices to help everyone understand why the organization values on-time on-budget outcomes over nice to haves.
Overcoming the desire to under promise and over deliver, a.k.a. running the 27th mile, requires effort. It requires leadership and thoughtful effort. Moreover, it requires new thinking from you and those you lead. Helping people accept that they can stop when the race is over or the project goal is delivered will take time. However, the outcomes are worth your time when your organization begins to trust that IT will deliver projects on time and on budget that provide exactly what the organization needs right now.
Stepping back one or two steps, the cost of 27th mile effort is not limited to one project deadline or a few extra things that a customer may not ever use. The bigger cost to the organization is that wasted extra effort steals resources from work that needs to be done and goals that need to be delivered for organization success. All effort requires time, and no one can buy more time. Eliminating the time wasted on 27th mile efforts, immediately adds time to deliver the goals your organization needs, expects, and wants. No organization has time for IT to run the 27th mile.
Project Management Professional (PMP)