Flying Agile – Play and the Cost of Delay

My last post discussed the game of traveling non-rev to Brighton, UK. It triggered more thoughts about the my Agile software development analogy and valuing features. We often talk about delivering the highest value first. Figuring out what is valuable seems like a recurring challenge. I work on large clunky government projects using some vague approximation to Agile. With the pressures of politics and the absence of customers voting value with a purchase, it is difficult to groom a backlog. The trip back from Brighton to Richmond,VA had analogous issues with planning. There is a cost to the delays we suffer in commercial travel. Not surprisingly, looking at valuation using the Cost of Delay (CoD) can be a useful tool in valuing travel options. Sometimes it’s easier to think of what you would lose as an option expires as a proxy for value. The curve of that loss does not have to be as binary as an opportunity cost. It can change with time, making the timing of last responsible moment more complex. In these cases I find it useful to look at the situation as a portfolio of Real Options with the overall value changing over time.

My week traveling through the history of my mother’s childhood in West Sussex was well spent. From the enchanting Brighton we went on to visit the stunning Arundel Castle and surrounds. Standen House revealed an intriguing evolutionary link from my interest in the Ages of Guilds to Software Craftsmanship movement. More on that after I have studied a bit more. I can now also say proudly that I have stood in the actual Heffalump Trap of Winnie the Pooh fame. As least I’m pretty sure. In a typical act of British understatement, the Hundred Acre Wood is not well marked. Maybe a woozle stole the signs. Either way, I have come to appreciate that the characters in Winnie the Pooh were probably based on the tortured souls in some government contract. I feel compelled to write a modern allegory.

Heading Home

Musings aside, the day to return eventually came. Usually when traveling non-rev, the return trip is more relaxed. After all you just have to get home. You don’t care when you or your luggage arrives. It’s fine if you separate. However this trip, we were on the clock. We needed to get my wife home in time for her job. She had a commitment she was not able to renegotiate. Much like any project the usual aspirations were going to take a seat at the back of the plane over meeting the schedule. Non-rev travel is very cheap and so takes money off the table in a similar fashion that price is not in the valuation picture of a fixed priced contract. If you need to execute on critical options to continue the journey/project then it is usually at your own cost. When you have a fixed scope/destination then you are pretty much reduced to trading off how you get to the end against the quality of the experience.

Valuing a trip is normally a straightforward combination of flights with available seats plus bonus points to flights with open business class seats. You mentally value the different paths home by the sum of the open seats. You take a little off for the cost of rental cars. You take a little more off if there is a chance of an expensive last minute hotel stopover. However on this trip the good seats were suddenly filling up. We didn’t know why at the time.

The 24hrs before an international flight are the most interesting. You are typically not allowed to book international flights inside this window and so the non-rev traveler can start to savor the prospects of free business class travel.That is the time to start lining up the Real Options.Other constraints where in play. There were no flights from Gatwick so we were going to have to leave from Heathrow. We were to be dropped off at Gatwick adding a coach trip to Heathrow. The flight options were not great. Flights to JFK were overbooked. Atlanta looked like the next best bet. Two flights which could both be options. The latter flight made it a bit tight as it had only one flight to Richmond after it arrived. The early Atlanta flight gave the most seat options to get to Richmond or within a short rental car drive. That “portfolio” of segments had the most seat value.

Game on!

The morning started out at Gatwick. We had not booked a coach trip because we didn’t know which one made sense. We didn’t know enough and so Real Options style we deferred commitment. However when we got to the counter the coaches were full so we could not leave immediately. The first Atlanta flight was now full on paper and so we expected to have to move our booking on the less desirable second flight. The later coach trip had us there in time for the second flight so we still had a viable plan.

Much like projects with high uncertainty, it was better to start managing the risks than managing to the plan. The known risk was that overbooked seats would take out our plan. Bumped revenue generating travelers rolling over between the Atlanta flights could take out the second flight as an option. The Cost of Delay was starting to override the original seating based plan’s value. Although I could not quantify it, being stuck at Gatwick drinking coffee seemed to annihilating options miles away at Heathrow. We needed to grow options which meant removing the delay in getting to Heathrow. Back to the National Express counter. Since I can’t pull off “mad grumpy traveler”, I went for empathy and humor with a different lady at the counter. Adding a little joy to her life paid off. Instead of looking at the bookings for the entire coach trip, as the first clerk did,  she looked at how loaded it was for the first segment to Heathrow. The coaches all stopped at Heathrow which meant drop offs emptied seats for the pick-ups. Real Options emerged where none had been. Finding Liquidity in the system makes that space for Real Options. Obvious unless you are the first desk clerk that couldn’t be bothered. Hat tip to unintentional Real Options thinking of the second desk clerk. Discovering Liquidity made for better customer service and met our needs at the same time. I wish I had taken her name. She also waived the rebooking fee and just stamped our paper ticket with the last minute adjustment for the driver’s benefit. The coach left in five minutes. First Lesson Learned in mining Liquidity in the travel system: Be nice first to the people who are required to be nice back.

The driver was less impressed. This last minute change was clearly a violation of policy. That stamp clearly represented someone overriding his authority. Second Lesson Learned in mining Liquidity: When dealing with Command & Control types, find folks who express their power by not giving a shit about the policies and procedures that establish their power in the first place. Then blame dysfunction on said policies and procedures. In your mutual distaste of useless constraints, you will find commonality of purpose. In the end the driver relented when we said we were told to get on this bus. We were a problem he wanted to be rid of. We willingly wanted to be get rid off right at Terminal 3 of Heathrow. Sorted.

Analysis Un-Paralysis

By the time we battled through customs, my wife’s furious working of the laptop keys had revealed our travel problem’s root cause. A strike at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris was causing folks traveling Air France to Atlanta via that hub to be rebooked on our Atlanta flight. Classic complex system behavior. The unknown interactions of the travel system we were embedded in manifested in ways unexpected to us. It makes sense only in hindsight. Even for those with nicely laid out travel plans, a trip is never just the sum of its segments. The context had changed and so had the options. Planning with Real Options does not equal commitment to that plan. Commitment only occurs when you get on that plan and it takes off, assuming, God forbid, no mechanical problems causing the pilot to turn around.

The good news of the this non-rev game is that it has taught me and now my wife to keep looking for more Real Options. Keep mining Liquidity. My wife had done just that and now right next to each other were our choices at hand. An overbooked first flight to Atlanta vs. a nearly full flight to Detroit vs. a future flight to Atlanta. The risk of over-bookings rolling over actually made the cost of delaying to see what happened on the second Atlanta flight higher as it dramatically dried off Liquidity now, as the Detroit flight was about to leave. It outweighed the normal valuation based on empty seats. We did not have a lot of time to evaluate segments beyond the new option of Detroit. It had them but unless we opted for that flight they had no value. We did know in general, that once in the States, we better understood how to mine Liquidity. In other words with all options being low value, how we got across the pond was no longer a differentiator. The Cost of delay did and was starting to spike. The risk was higher with Atlanta that we could not make across the pond so Detroit won. No fancy business class but we did score a spare seat between us. I resigned to folding myself up for eight hours.

Are We There Yet?

On arrival we started digging for options. There was one flight to Richmond and it was operated by an affiliate. Turns out you end up at the bottom of the affiliate’s standby list behind its employees. On the tiny plane with a long list we were not going to Richmond. However that was only the ultimate goal. It’s not the number of plays in this game that determine the winner. It’s about staying in the game to get closer to the goal by making plays. We could get a room in Detroit and retire from the game or get to DC and play on. It was getting late and I might not be awake enough for the drive home. The Cost of Delay was a hotel room. The cost of commitment was a car rental plus a pretty rough time staying awake. Pretty much neutral. Time to look at the other goals. Getting my wife home in time for work kicked in. Time to squeeze liquidity from the rock of reality. Time to call my DC based daughter and see if she’d be up for playing taxi. Liquidity Lessons Learns No.3: Be nice to your kids now because when you are old, lost and alone they may be your final option. My daughter has played this travel game and played it well by herself. She came to the rescue and in the early morning hours we were back home.

Lessons learned on most projects often look to change the outcome after the project has ended. Playing this game helped us not in how we should have acted in the past, but how we think about the uncertain future. Did we make the right choices in hindsight? It turns out we didn’t. That surge of Paris over-bookings for some reason didn’t eventuate. We would have gotten business class to Atlanta on the earlier flight and been home at a comfortable hour. However precision in the execution of a plan gives satisfaction in the wrong areas. Sticking to the same methodology in an unremitting project context leads to frustration when the context changes in way that no longer supports the methodology. As they say, today’s solutions only solve yesterday’s problems. It matters only in the end that you reached the goal. We not only won the game but my satisfaction came from a game well-played. Thinking of my work endeavors as incremental experiments with play, rather than compliance to the almighty god of Agile or the presumptuous princeps of project management is how I thrive in amongst the grind and how I deal with the uncertainty of complex adaptive systems. Your mileage may vary but that’s OK.



About guywinterbotham

An Agile Buccaneer navigating the corporate storm
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